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Microsoft Makes Clever Moves

mobile internet, software By February 1, 2015 Tags: , , , 19 Comments

 

by Jean-Louis Gassée

While Microsoft Office for mobile is a satisfying success, the company can’t seem to create — or even buy — a mobile operating system that can compete with iOS and Android. Perhaps they’ve been looking in the wrong direction and can return to their “trusted” Embrace and Extend tactics.

Microsoft published its numbers for its Fiscal Year 2015 2nd quarter ending in December 2014. While the company isn’t the money machine it once was, it is healthy: Revenue grew 8% to $26.5B, Operating Income declined only a bit (- 2%) at $7.8B, there will be another $.31 dividend for the quarter, and cash reserves stand at $90B.

Such numbers give Satya Nadella the space he needs to implement the Mobile First – Cloud First vision he outlined last year. A key component of this plan is to spread Office applications across all platforms and devices: PCs, tablets, and smartphones – native apps as well as Web versions. Last week, Microsoft took another step in this direction with the release of its historic Outlook PIM (Personal Information Manager) app for Android and iOS.

While the Outlook release was warmly received, I’ve learned to take enthusiastic press reviews with caution. I prefer to “play customer”: I buy and use the product in klutzy ways engineers can’t foresee and, as a result, I get a better idea of how the product will fare in the real world. So, I installed Outlook on my iPad mini and, not to pour salt on some wounds… It Just Works. It runs my Exchange account at work, and it speaks Gmail and iCloud as well. No ifs, no buts.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the release is that it completes the core components of the native MS Office bundle: Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and now Outlook. It doesn’t matter which platform you use — Windows, Mac, Android, or iOS — you now have the full complement of Microsoft’s productivity apps built specifically for your device.

I used to think that if Apple could get its software house in order and work out the  (numerous) bugs, iWork could easily displace Microsoft Office on Mac, iCloud, and iOS. After all, iWork is free… Now, I’m not so sure. With this release, MS Office provides a fit and finish, a safe and effective cross-platform solution that’s worth the price of admission, particularly in the Enterprise world.

But Apple isn’t the competitor Microsoft worries about. Cross-platform Office is a powerful countermove against Google Apps. Microsoft doesn’t have a dog in the old Web vs. Native Apps fight, it offers both everywhere.

In other matters, however, things aren’t entirely rosy for Microsoft. Its smartphone hardware business isn’t doing well. A look at the recent 10-Q and at the slide presentation for the Earnings Release shows hardware revenue of $2.3B, for 10.5M Lumia phones and 39.7M on-Lumia devices:

Phone Hardware

Microsoft’s smartphone business is still dealing with the Nokia acquisition trauma, so these numbers are less reliable than in a stable business. But even if we proceed with caution, when we divide the $2.3B revenue number by 50.2M (the total number of devices), we get a meager ASP (Average System Price) of $46.

One could argue that the computation is misleading because it throws Non-Lumia phones — such as the Nokia X running Android — into the same pot as worthier Lumia devices. So let’s take take another stab at the numbers: Let’s imagine that all non-Lumia phones are simply given away, $0 ASP. That leaves us with 10.5M Lumia phones divided into $2.3B revenue for a yield of $219 ASP. Compare this to the $687 ASP Apple got for its iPhones last quarter. Playing with numbers a bit more, if you assume a $20 ASP for non-Lumia “dumbphones”, the ASP for Lumia smart devices comes to $143.

As discussed here last December, even with “forever” cash reserves, why bother? Big enterprises such as Bank of America and Chase that have discontinued Windows Phone support agree.

After fruitlessly jumping into a Broad Strategic Partnership with Nokia and then promptly Osborning it, Microsoft acquired the company’s smartphone business rather than letting it die. It’s still not working and, as the most recent industry numbers show, there’s little hope that Microsoft’s phone hardware business, while saddled with the hapless Windows Phone OS, will be anything other than a waste of time, money, and reputation. Many have suggested that Microsoft drop its OS efforts and fork Android, returning, in Ben Thompson’s words, to “its roots of embracing and extending”.

That brings us to Cyanogen. In the grand tradition of Homebrew Computing that gave birth to Microsoft, Apple and countless others, developers have taken the Open Android operating system and opened it even more, creating a raft of improved versions.

Initially, many thought these variants were just for the hacker who wanted to play with his Android device, reflash its ROM, and grow hair on his chest. But one Android strain, CyanogenMod, exhibited such vitality hat it spawned an organized, for-profit company. In 2012, Benchmark and Redpoint led a $7M Series A investment in Cyanogen, Inc. (“Series A” is typically the first serious VC money, after a Seed Round.) In December, 2014, there was a more substantial $23M Series B round, led by another member of the Valley’s VC nobility, Andreessen Horowitz. And now, there is talk of a $70M round…  in which Microsoft might be a “minority” player.

Kirk McMaster, Cyanogen’s CEO, has been unusually candid about the company’s goal [emphasis mine]:

“I’m the CEO of Cyanogen. We’re attempting to take Android away from Google.”

and…

We’ve barely scratched the surface in regards to what mobile can be. Today, Cyanogen has some dependence on Google. Tomorrow, it will not. We will not be based on some derivative of Google in three to five years. There will be services that are doing the same old bulls— with Android, and then there will be something different. That is where we’re going here.”

Ambitious words, indeed, but they’re backed by some of the Valley’s smartest money.

Microsoft’s role in Cyanogen is probably just a minor one; perhaps it will help with the patent portfolio it unleashes on Android OEMs. But the company’s involvement at all could be seen as part of its long battle with Google. Recall that “Google acquired Android in 2005 as a defense against Windows Mobile dominating smartphones just as Windows dominated PCs.” Later, in 2008, Microsoft acquired Android founder Andy Rubin’s previous company Danger, whose Sidekick design inspired Google’s pre-iPhone G1 devices.

Cyanogen has long been in Google’s cross-hairs. In its early days, CyanogenMod (since renamed to Cyanogen OS) was perceived as such a nuisance — or a threat — that its users suddenly found that they needed to perform contorted workarounds to load Google’s proprietary apps (Google Map, YouTube, GTalk, and so on). Can Microsoft resist the temptation to aid this Google irritant?

Tantalizing as the Cyanogen investment is, it might not be enough to keep Microsoft in the brutal smartphone hardware business, but it’s consistent with the company’s efforts to undermine Google’s ecosystem by any means necessary. Including gathering allies to do to Android what Bill Gates once did to Lotus 1-2-3.

Let’s keep in mind that the mobile industry is no more mature than the PC industry was in the mid eighties. Things could get interesting as Cyanogen reveals more of the business model its muscular investors have bought into. And they will become particularly interesting if the company can corral support from industry players who are eager to get out from under Google’s thumb.

JLG@mondaynote.com

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