You're Microsoft's new CEO. How do you like staring at the abyss between two mutually exclusive ways of making money? The old business model, Windows and Office licensing, is going away. The Devices and Services future puts you in direct competition against the likes of Google and Apple as well as former licensing vassals such as HP and Dell. Can you take the company to the other side, or will you fall to the bottom of the business model transition canyon?

Life used to be simple and immensely profitable at Microsoft. As its name implies, the company started as a supplier of microcomputer software. Simplifying a bit, it all started with the BASIC interpreter, which found its way into many early personal computers including the Apple ][. After that came DOS, the operating system for IBM's Personal Computer; and Multiplan, an early foray into desktop productivity. DOS begat Windows, and Multiplan was succeeded in steps by the full Office suite. Through a series of astute business and lawyerly maneuvers, the Windows + Office combo eventually spread to virtually all PC clones.

This made Microsoft the most successful software company the world had ever seen, and its founding CEO, Bill Gates, became the richest man on the planet. In 2000, the company's market capitalization reached $540B (approximately $800B in today's dollars). As this Wikinvest graph shows, Microsoft dwarfed all other tech companies:

msft_graph1

(At the time, the NASDAQ index of mostly tech stocks stood a little above 4,000, it closed at 3,792 this past Friday.)

Back then, Windows + Office licensing was the only money pump that really mattered. Everything else -- all other software products and even sales of enterprise servers -- either depended on Microsoft's huge PC installed base, or didn't move the needle. Hardware and entertainment lines of business were largely immaterial; online activities weren't yet the money sink we've seen in recent years.

According to the company's 2000 Annual Report, the combination of the "Windows Platforms" and "Productivity Applications" accounted for $19.3B in revenue ($9.3B and $10B, respectively). That's 84% of the company's $23B total revenue and, even more important, 98% of Microsoft's Operating Income!

Moving to Q1 2013, the market capitalization picture has drastically changed:

msft_graph2

Google is in many ways becoming Microsoft 2.0, Oracle has grown nicely, and Apple is now on top.

What happened?

Mobile personal computing happened. Smartphones and tablets are displacing conventional PCs, desktops, and laptops.

To put it even more succinctly: the iPhone did it.

When Steve Jobs stepped onto the stage at MacWorld in January, 2007, there were plenty of smartphones on the market. Windows Mobile, Palm Treo, Nokia, Blackberry... But Apple's iPhone was different. It really was a personal computer with a modern operating system. While the iPhone didn't initially support third party apps, a Software Development Kit (SDK) and App Store were soon introduced.

Android quickly followed suit, the Smartphone 2.0 race was on, and the incumbents were left to suffer grievous losses.

Riding on the iPhone's success and infrastructure, the iPad was introduced, with Android-powered tablets not far behind. These new, mobile personal computers caused customers to Think Different, to re-examine their allegiance to the one-and-only PC.

As these products flooded the market, Microsoft went through its own version of the Stages of Grief, from denial to ultimate acceptance.

First: It's Nothing. See Steve Ballmer memorably scoffing at the iPhone in 2007. Recall ODM Director Eddie Wu's 2008 predication that Windows Mobile would enjoy 40% market share by 2012.

Second: There is no Post-PC..."Plus is the new 'Post'". Smartphones and tablets are mere companion devices that will complement our evergreen PCs. The party line was eloquently asserted two years ago by Frank Shaw, Microsoft's VP of Communications:

"So while it's fun for the digerati to pronounce things dead, and declare we're post-PC, we think it's far more accurate to say that the 30-year-old PC isn't even middle aged yet, and about to take up snowboarding."


Next comes Bargaining: Microsoft makes a tablet, but with all the attributes of a PC. Actually, they make two Surface devices, one using an ARM processor, the other a conventional Intel CPU.

Today comes Acceptance: We're indeed in a Post-PC era. PCs aren't going to disappear any time soon, but the 30-year epoch of year after year double digit growth is over. We're now a Devices and Services company!

It's a crisp motto with a built-in logic: Devices create demand for Microsoft services that, in turn, will fuel the market's appetite for devices. It's a great circular synergy.

But behind the slick corpospeak lurks a problem that might seriously maim the company: Microsoft wants to continue to license software to hardware makers while it builds a Devices business that competes with these same licensees. They want it both ways.

Real business model transitions are dangerous. By real transition I don't mean adding a new line of peripherals or accessories, I mean moving to a new way of making money that negatively impacts the old one. The old money flow might dry up before the new one is able to replace it, causing an earnings trough.

For publicly traded companies, this drought is unacceptable. Rather than attempt the transition and face the ire of Wall Street traders, some companies slowly sink into irrelevance. Others take themselves private to allow the blood-letting to take place out of public view. When the curtain lifts some months later, a smaller, healthier outfit is relaunched on the stock market. Dell is a good example of this: Michael Dell gathered investors, himself included, to buy the company back and adapt its business model to a Post-PC world behind closed doors.

Microsoft can't abandon its current model entirely, it can't stop selling software licenses to hardware makers. But the company realizes that it also has to get serious about making its own hardware if it wants to stay in the tablets and smartphone race.

The key reason for Microsoft's dilemma is Android. Android is inexpensive enough (if not exactly free) that it could kill Redmond's mobile licensing business. (Microsoft might get a little bit of money from makers of Android-powered hardware thanks to its patent portfolio, but that doesn't change the game.) This is why Microsoft offered "platform support payments" to Nokia, which essentially made Windows Phone free. And, now we have the belated, under duress acquisition of Nokia's smartphone business, complete with 32,000 angry Finns.

(Microsoft is rumored to have approached HTC with an offer to dual-boot Windows Phone on HTC's Android handsets. It's not very believable rumor -- two competing operating systems on the same smartphone? But it has a satisfying irony: In an earlier incarnation I saw Microsoft play legal hardball against anyone who tried to sell PCs with both Windows and another OS installed at the factory...)

Another example of trying to keep one foot on each side of the abyss is the Surface tablet. Microsoft tried to create a hybrid "best-of-both-worlds" PC/tablet, complete with two different UIs. I bought one and found what many experienced: It doesn't have the simplicity and agility of a genuine tablet, nor does it offer the classic workflow found on Windows 7. We'll have to see how helpful the upcoming Windows 8.1 is in that regard.

So... What about our new CEO?

  • S/he finds a company that's in the middle of a complicated structural and cultural reorganization.

  • The legacy PC business is slowing down, cannibalized by mobile personal computers.

  • Old OEM partners aren't pleased with the company's new direction(1). They have to be kept inside the tent while the Surface tablets experiment plays out. Success will let Microsoft discard Legacy PC makers. Failure will lead Redmond to warmly re-embrace its old vassals.

  • The Windows Phone licensing business lost its clients as a result of the Nokia acquisition.

  • Integrating Nokia will be difficult, if not a slow-moving disaster.

  • The Windows Phone OS needs work, including a tablet version that has to compete with straight tablets from Android licensees and from Apple.

  • Employees have to be kept on board.

  • So do shareholders.


How would you like the job?

-- JLG@mondaynote.com

(1) HP's Meg Whitman now sees Microsoft as a competitor -- and introduces a Google-powered Chromebook. What we think this will do for HP's Personal Systems Group revenue and profit is best left unsaid.

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