The Microsoft CEO succession process appears to be stalled. This is a company with immense human, technical, and financial resources; the tech industry is filled with intelligent, energetic, dedicated candidates. What’s wrong with the matchmaking process?
Blond, Japanese, 25 years old, 15 years experience – and bisexual. This is a caricature, but only barely, of the impossible CEO job specs that executive recruiters circulate when on a mission to replace the head of a large company.
The real list of requirements describes a strategist with a piercing eye for the long term… and daily operational details; a fearless leader of people, willing to inflict pain… but with a warm touch; a strong communicator, a great listener, and an upstanding steward of shareholder interests…and of the environment.
When I gently confront a recruiter friend with the impossibility of finding such a multi-talented android, he gives me the Gallic Shrug: “It’s the client, you know. They’re anxious, they don’t know what they want. So, to tranquilize their Board, we throw everything in.”
I ask the distinguished headhunter what character flaws will be tolerated in a candidate. The query is met with incomprehension: “What? No, no, we can’t have character flaws; this situation requires impeccable credentials.” And perfect teeth, one assumes.
Still in a caustic mood, I prod the gent to picture himself driving to Skyline Boulevard and walking to the top of Borel Hill, a great place to meditate. Turning away from the hills that gently roll down to the Pacific, he faces the Valley. Can he sit, quiet his mind, and visualize the gentle crowd of pristine CEOs down there?
No. He’ll see a herd of flawed men and a few women who regularly exhibit unpleasant character traits; who abuse people, facts, and furniture; and who are yet successful and admired. Some are even liked. There are no Mother Theresas, only Larry Ellisons and Marisa Mayers, to say nothing of our dearly departed Steve Jobs. (Actually, the diminutive Albanian nun was said to have had a fiery temper and, perhaps, wasn’t so saintly after all.)
For a large, established company, having to use an executive recruiter to find its next CEO carries a profoundly bad aroma. It means that the directors failed at one of their most important duties: succession planning. Behind this first failure, a second one lurks: The Board probably gave the previous CEO free rein to promote and fire subordinates in a way that prevented successors from emerging.
Is this the picture at Microsoft? Is the protracted search for Steve Ballmer’s successor yet another sign of the Board’s dysfunction? For years, Microsoft directors watched Ballmer swing and miss at one significant product wave after another. They sat by and did nothing as he lost key executives. Finally, in January of this year, Board member John Thompson broke the bad charm and prodded Ballmer to accelerate the company’s strategic evolution, a conversation that led to the announcement, in August, of Ballmer’s “mutually agreed” departure.
Having badly and repeatedly misjudged the company’s business and its CEO, is the Board looking for an impossibly “well-rounded” candidate: the man or woman who can draw the sword from the stone, someone with a heart and mind pure enough to put the company back on track?
For some time now, we’ve been hearing rumors that Ford’s current CEO, Alan Mulally, could become Microsoft’s new CEO. Mulally is well-respected for his turnaround experience: Since 2006, he’s been busy reviving the family-controlled Ford, the only Detroit automaker that didn’t need (or take) bailout money. Before Ford, Mulally spent 37 years in engineering and executive management positions at Boeing, where he rubbed elbows with Microsoft royalty in Seattle.
As the rumor has it, Mulally would be appointed as a transitional leader whose main charge would be to groom one of Microsoft’s internal candidates and then step aside as he or she assumes the throne. Will it be (the rumor continues) Satya Nadella, Exec VP of Cloud and Enterprise activities? Or former Skype CEO Tony Bates, now a post-acquisition Microsoftian? Both are highly regarded inside and outside the company.
(I’m surprised there aren’t more internal candidates. Tech pilgrim Stephen Elop is sometimes mentioned, but I don’t see him in the running. Elop has served his purpose and is back in Redmond — some say he never really left — after a roundtrip to Finland during which he Osborned Nokia, thus lowering the price of acquisition by his former and again employer.)
On the surface, this sounds like an ideal arrangement.
For all his intellectual and political acumen, his people and communication skills, Mulally possesses no domain knowledge. He has none of the bad and good experiences that would help him understand the killer details as well as the strategic insights that are needed to run Microsoft — insights that, in retrospect, Ballmer lacked.
But, you’ll say, this is no problem; he can rely on the CEO-in-waiting to evaluate situations for him and make recommendations. No. Mulally would have no way to really weigh the pros and cons outside of the streamlined charts in a fair and balanced PowerPoint presentation.
In addition, the grooming process would prolong the company’s confusing interregnum. The people who have to perform actual work at Microsoft will continue to wonder what will happen to the party line du jour when the “real” CEO finally assumes power. The uncertainty discourages risk-taking and exacerbates politics — who knows who’ll come in tomorrow and reverse course?
Fortunately, the Mulally proposition no longer seems likely. The latest set of rumors have Mulally staying at Ford until the end of 2014. Let’s hope they’re right. Wall Street seems to think so… and expressed its disappointment: After regularly climbing for weeks, Microsoft shares dropped by 2.4% on Thursday, Dec 5th, after Mulally declared that he wouldn’t jump ship.
So where does Microsoft turn, and why are they taking so long? Once you put aside the Mr./Ms. Perfect fantasy, there’s no dearth of capable executives with the brains and guts to run Microsoft. These are people who already run large corporations, or are next-in-line to do so. Exec recruiters worth the pound of flesh they get for their services have e-Rolodexes full of such people — some inside the company itself.
Now, place yourself inside the heart and mind of this intelligent candidate:
‘Do I want to work with that Board? In particular, do I want Bill Gates and his pal Steve Ballmer hovering over everything I do? I know I’ll have to make unpopular decisions and upset more than a few people. What’s in it for me – and for Microsoft – in a situation where unhappy members of the old guard would be tempted to go over my head and whine to Bill and Steve? How long would I last before I get fired or, worse, neutered and lose my mind?’
Consider it a litmus test: Any candidate willing to accept this road to failure is automatically disqualified as being too weak. A worthy contender makes it clear that he or she needs an unfettered mandate with no Office Of The Second Guessing in the back of the boardroom. Bill and Steve would have to go — but the Old Duo doesn’t want to leave.
It’s a stalemate…and that’s the most likely explanation for the protracted recruitment process.
We’ll soon know where Microsoft’s Board stands. Will it favor a truly independent CEO or will it cling to its past sins — and sinners?
Or, as a Valley wag asks: Which elephantine gestation will end first, that of Microsoft’s new CEO, or Apple’s equally well-rounded Mac Pro?
Blaming Steve Ballmer for Microsoft’s string of mistakes won’t do. Why did the Board of Directors keep him on the job for thirteen years, only to let him “retire” in the midst of several dangerous transitions — without naming a successor? What does this say about the Board’s qualifications to pick Microsoft’s next CEO?
For more than a decade, a team of physicians has been ministering to a patient who was once vital and robust, but now no longer thrives. Recurring diagnostic errors, stubborn inattention to symptoms, improper prescriptions haven’t yet killed the object of their care but, lately, the patient’s declining health has become so obvious that the doctors, now embarrassed and desperate, have scheduled a heart transplant.
Now comes the test: Would you entrust the patient’s future to such a confederacy of dunces?
With this metaphor in mind, let’s contemplate the record of Microsoft Directors since Steve Ballmer assumed the mantle 13 years ago, and ask if they’re qualified to appoint a successor.
Consider the Directors’ obdurate passivity while they watched the company miss opportunities, take one wrong turn after another, and fail to execute crucial transitions. Search was conceded to Google; digital music (players and distribution) is dominated by Apple; social networking belongs to Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; the smartphone market is handed over to Google’s Android and Apple’s iPhone; tablets from the same duo are now bleeding the Windows + Office Golden Goose; Windows Vista and now Windows 8; Surface tablets… Even the once mighty Internet Explorer browser has been displaced by Google’s Chrome running on all desktop and mobile platforms.
Blaming (and forgiving) the CEO for one or two mistakes is reasonable. But if these missteps were entirely Ballmer’s fault, why did the Directors keep him at the helm? This raises the question: How much of the company’s value did the Directors themselves let Google, Apple, and others run away with? Is Microsoft’s Board a danger to the company?
The latter question comes in sharper relief when looking at the timing and manner of Ballmer’s exit.
On July 11th, Ballmer announces a major company reorganization. More than just the usual medley of beheadings and redistribution of spoils, Microsoft was to restructure itself away from its old divisional arrangement and move towards the type of functional organization used by companies such as Apple. In addition, the new company motto became Devices and Services, evoking a virtuous circle: Best-of-class branded devices would sell more great Microsoft services, while the latter would give a boost to Microsoft devices.
A week later, on July 18th, Microsoft releases pedestrian quarterly numbers, the lowlight of which is a $900M write-off attributed to very poor sales of Surface PC/tablets
On August 23rd, Ballmer announces his sooner-than-planned retirement — sometime in the following 12 months. No word of a successor.
And, to top everything off, on September 3rd, with Ballmer on his way out, the Board approves the emergency acquisition of Nokia’s handset business, complete with 32,000 angry Finns. (We’ll discuss their misdirected anger in a future Monday Note.)
A drastic company reorganization makes sense. Instead of one more turn of the optimizing crank, Microsoft acknowledges that it needs to Think Different.
Writing off unsold inventory is the sensible recognition of a problem; it removes an impediment by facilitating a fire sale.
There was a clear and present danger for Nokia’s handset business to fail, or to become the walking dead. Microsoft bought it to avoid the possible collapse of the Windows Phone platform. In theory (i.e., ignoring cultural realities), the acquisition gives Microsoft more control over its smartphone future.
All rational moves.
But letting Ballmer go right in the middle of two huge and complicated transitions — and without immediately appointing a successor? On its face, the timing and manner of Ballmer’s exit defies common business sense. It also raises questions about the Board’s failure to adequately plan for Ballmer’s succession. Supposedly, Succession Planning is a key component of good Corporate Governance. In plain language, a Board of Directors is obligated to identify and groom successors for key positions, starting with the CEO.
Which raises a few more questions.
Microsoft undertakes two risky, company-redefining moves: a profound structural and strategic reorganization, followed by its most foreign, most people-intensive acquisition ever. What was the overwhelming need to announce Ballmer’s departure – without naming a successor – right in the middle of such instability?
Considering its résumé, what makes Microsoft’s Board qualified to pick a new CEO?
And what are the parameters of the search for Mr. Right? Assuming Microsoft hires an industry heavyweight, will this individual be given the space and power to be his own woman or man, that is to reshuffle the Board? And what about the freedom from deferring to the company’s Founder?
And what must the mood be like at Microsoft? “When you receive an order, do absolutely nothing and wait for the countermanding directive.” This ancient Army saying must now be popular in Redmond. It’s not that people working there don’t care, but they just don’t know what the next CEO will want, and they certainly don’t know when. How can one not expect damaging paralysis and politicking when the CEO is let go without a successor?
All interesting questions.
[I’ll leave alone rumors such as Ford’s CEO Alan Mullally replacing Ballmer. Notwithstanding the obligatory congratulations, there would be much giggling in Mountain View and Cupertino. Competent management is a necessary but not sufficient condition…see Ballmer.]
by Jean-Louis Gassée
The decline of PC sales finally caught up with Microsoft, resulting in weak quarterly results that force Steve Ballmer to admit a strategic mistake and propose a radical change of direction.
Last week’s Monday Note focused on Microsoft’s conversion from a divisional to a functional organization. It resulted in interesting discussions in the comments section as well as in e-mail exchanges and conversations around a couple of Valley watering holes. Some thought Microsoft’s statements had the sincerity of a death-bed conversion, others pointed to the challenges in remaking a cricket team into a football squad, most expressed doubts about Microsoft’s ability to successfully adapt to a world where the PC no longer reigns supreme.
On Thursday, Microsoft released its numbers for the quarter ending in June, the last of their 2013 fiscal year. They were not good. MSFT lost more than 11% the following day, taking its long-suffering partner HP (- 4.5%) with it.
Wall Street’s brutal dumping of the stock after “shockingly” bad news isn’t surprising, but what should we make of the dogged complacency of the financial seers leading up to the announcement? Did they really not see this coming? Despite a historic five-quarter decline in PC sales, investors hadn’t wavered in their belief that Microsoft would find ways to compensate for plummeting Windows + Office profits.
Perhaps I ought to have written cronyism instead of complacency, above. Before the SEC frowned on the excesses of “managed earnings“, Microsoft was famous, and comfortable, for always emerging just a penny above its wink-and-nudge guidance. To pull off this funambulist exploit, the company shuffled money in and out of the Unearned Revenue cupboard and other reserves. To paraphrase the old saying, You Didn’t Get Fired For Owning Microsoft.
If you think the accusation of cronyism is too strong, take a stroll through the latest Earnings Call Transcript, courtesy of Morningstar, especially the Q&A section. With such an earnings surprise, you’d expect Wall Streeters to inflict company execs with combative questioning and probing follow-ups; you’d look for Steve Ballmer to be front and center, explaining and hectoring. Instead, we have Amy Hood, the newly appointed (but very experienced) CFO, parrying deferential questions (and very few follow-ups) with mind-numbing answers such as this one:
I think I feel good. I think in some ways the reorg we announced last week along with our increased focus and our single strategy has allowed us to really look and say what are the things we’re going to put behind and focus and to improve our execution and so I feel quite good about our ability to do that. And you have heard us say before many of the reasons we did this reorg are about doing things better and more efficiently.
Pity the long-suffering analyst… and if their suffering continues, perhaps we should expect Ballmer himself to show up at the late September analyst indoctrination event in Redmond.
The Microsoft surprise, dubbed by TechCrunch Its Biggest Drop Of The Century, has infused the discussions of the company’s future, what Ballmer will do with his new organization now that the Redmond Giant (finally!) seems to be aware that it’s playing catch up in a Post-PC era.
As luck would have it, I got a draft of Ballmer’s memo to a small group of Microsoft execs. I can’t vouch for its authenticity — it was “regifted” through a series of contacts, friends and foes of old OS wars — but I hope you’ll find it interesting:
[Confidential – Burn Before Reading]
From: Steve Ballmer
To: Microsoft Leadership Team – Do not Distribute
Date: July 20, 2013, 6 a.m.
Subject: Windows Mobile 9
It’s time for me to confess a serious strategic mistake – and to ask for your commitment to change course and breathe new life into our legacy business.
This is about tablets.
Our own unsuccessful attempts to enter the tablet market (Widows for Pen Computing in 1991, and the Tablet PC in 2002) lured us into thinking there was “no there there”. Because of this, we downplayed the impact of a new wave of devices from Apple and Android licensees.
Neither our PR campaign to negate the advent of a Post-PC era nor Frank Shaw’s valiant efforts to position the new devices as “PC Companions” has had any effect on the market. We even leveraged our long and cosy relationship with IDC and Gartner and got these to firms to create a dismissive category label for these new machines: media-consumption tablets – with the clear implication that they were unsuitable for business uses. All these exertions were for naught. For five consecutive quarters, we’ve watched PC sales decrease and tablet shipments skyrocket.
This has become a significant threat to the very foundation of our business model.
For more than two decades, the Windows + Office tandem has been a source of incredible power and wealth, it has enhanced the life of more than a billion users and has allowed our company to expand into other high-margin Enterprise products and services.
For all these years, we scrupulously followed McKinsey’s “Not A Single Crack In The Wall” advice, we’ve managed to successfully Embrace and Extend each and every possible threat to the Windows + Office combo.
While we initially underestimated these new tablets, their threat soon became obvious and we started thinking of ways to protect our franchise.
That’s when I took the company in the wrong direction.
To prevent these tablets from penetrating the Office market, I followed our Embrace and Extend strategy and endorsed the creation of hybrid software and hardware: The dual-mode (Desktop and Touch UI) Windows 8 and Surface tablets.
The results are in. Windows 8 hasn’t taken the market by storm. The Windows 8 tablets manufactured by our hardware partners are sitting in warehouses. We just took a $900M write-off on our RT tablets, now on fire-sale.
It doesn’t matter who actually proposed or implemented the failed strategy, I endorsed it. What matters most — the only thing that matters — is what we’re going to do now.
I have a plan. It’s conceptually simple but I won’t sugarcoat the situation. It will be extremely difficult to execute, particularly given the urgency.
First, I am tasking Terry Myerson, our EVP Operating Systems, with creating Windows Mobile 9, a tablet-capable version of Windows Phone 8 that will serve all of our mobile products. Until last week’s reorg, Terry was leading our Windows Phone group and is therefore ideally suited to the new task.
Qi Lu, EVP Applications and Services, will work with Tim to deliver a full, real Windows Mobile Office without the limitations imposed by RT. And, in keeping with our strategic need to spread Office everywhere and to provide the widest base for our on-line Office 365, Qi Lu will also produce Office versions for Android and iOS platforms.
Moving to hardware, we cannot rely on Nokia and other hardware partners to create enough momentum for this new platform, so I’ve asked our JLG (Julie Larson-Green) to develop first-party mobile devices — a Microsoft smartphone and a Microsoft tablet — that run Windows Mobile 9. The use of the somewhat damaged Surface name for these products will be evaluated as we go.
Everyone else in the company, from Operations to Evangelism, from HR to Finance is expected to give their full support to this most urgent, most vital initiative. In particular, our most recent hire, Mark Penn, EVP Advertising and Strategy, is tasked to come up with the right narrative for the strategic transition to Windows Mobile 9. Earned in unforgiving Washington politics, Mark’s long experience with complicated situations will help us navigate the troubled media waters ahead of us.
I know you love this company as much as I do. Thanks for pouring all your energy into this effort.
I know I didn’t fool anyone with this apocryphal memo. While it could be viewed as satirical, it’s actually deadly (that’s the right word) serious. And it raises serious questions.
First, there’s the small matter of implementation. To mangle Brooks’ law, nine engineers can’t gestate an operating system (or an Office Suite) in one month. Coming up with a “sincere” tablet OS and the corresponding Office version will take time, time during which Android and iOS tablets will continue to cannibalize PCs — and gain hardware and software muscle. This leads to the inevitable question: Has Microsoft arrived too late to the tablet feast?
Then there’s the question of price and its impact on Microsoft’s financials. Software on today’s tablets is either free, or priced at a fraction of its desktop PC equivalent. (In retrospect, significantly lower prices for tablet software might have played a role in Microsoft’s “safe” decision to stick with a PC/tablet hybrid.) If they go the real tablet route, Ballmer & Co. will have to tell shareholders to expect lower numbers, even if Office 365 subscriptions partially compensate for the loss in Windows licenses and conventional desktop software.
Another thought arises from Ballmer’s (actual, not mythical) reference to “first-party devices”, meaning smartphones and tablets made by (for) Microsoft and sold by the company, whether through its own stores, its intramural booths at the likes of Best Buy, or through more conventional retail channels. The math could be attractive: 30% Gross Margin on a $500 device sure beats 85% on $50 or less of licensing revenue — as long as the hardware unit volume cooperates.
For Microsoft, going for such a business model apostasy, renouncing software licensing for hardware revenue, is easier said than done: an “earnings trough” looms if the old model collapses faster than expected and if the new profit engine takes too much time to come on line. One might bring up the Xbox as an example of Microsoft successfully moving to a vertically integrated business model, but this would be forgetting there was no perilous transition away from juicy operating system licenses, the Xbox was vertically integrated at birth.
The coming months are going to become even more interesting as Microsoft must progress beyond grand statements about its new functional organization and explain in detail what the new team will actually do.
- Benedict Evans, truly independent telecom analyst: The irrelevance of Microsoft.
- Mary Jo Foley, noted Microsoft observer: Microsoft’s $900 million Surface RT write-down: How did this happen?
- Philip Elmer-DeWitt, careful Apple 2.0 chronicler: Microsoft’s Surface tablets: A trip down memory lane.
by Jean-Louis Gassée
After repeatedly tweaking its divisional structure, Microsoft tries a more radical realignment along functional lines like, you know, that other company. The lengthy, bombastic but confusing announcement leaves one big, vital question unanswered: What happens if PC sales keep falling?
In a July 11th, 2013 memo to Microsoft employees, Steve Ballmer announces a “far-reaching realignment of the company that will enable us to innovate with greater speed, efficiency and capability in a fast changing world.”
In a few words: Microsoft will switch from a divisional to a functional organization; from what has often been labeled as silos — or even warring fiefdoms — to a set of functional groups aligned to execute the company’s new “devices and services” strategy.
Inevitably, several observers have called this new structure Apple-like, that it’s a clone of the model developed and ferociously enforced by Steve Jobs, and now shepherded by Tim Cook.
As the healthily satirical Bonkers World visualizes, Microsoft wants to move away from this…
and become more like this…
Nick Wingfield’s NY Times article, titled Microsoft Overhauls, the Apple Way, puts it this way:
It is yet another sign of how deeply Apple’s way of doing things has seeped into every pore of the technology industry.
Or see Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, in Seeing Apple in Microsoft’s reorganization:
I think I’m being completely rational in my shock at Steve Ballmer’s latest reorganization of Microsoft. His long memo explaining it to employees is one long homage to the Apple that Steve Jobs re-created between 1997 and 2011. Everything about the reorg sounds like Ballmer wants Microsoft to behave more like Apple.
The comparisons to Apple, by Mssrs. Wingfield and Lashinsky, aren’t just piquant stabs at a flailing giant. They see the problems.
I’ll add my perspective.
There are enormous differences between the scorched-earth reorganization of Apple ’97 and the “far-reaching realignment” of MS ’13:
- 16 years ago, Apple was on the ropes. The market numbers spoke loudly and cleared minds.
- Apple’s business was extremely simple: Macintosh personal computers.
- A charismatic co-founder returned and told everyone to Think Different – and then he enforced the diktat.
Apple came up with a string of monumental hits after Jobs’ return in 1997– iPod/iTunes, Apple Stores, iPhone, App Store, iPad. All of these offerings were facilitated by the company’s now celebrated functional structure, but none of them were created by the reorganization. Put another way, functional structure is a necessary but not sufficient condition (a point to keep in mind when considering Apple without Steve Jobs).
I greatly admire Ballmer’s determination to never give up, never admit failure, always look forward, attitudes that are well-served by his imposing physical presence, impeccable speech, and unshakable composure. But this change isn’t the sort of organizational tune-up that he has perfected over the last three years, it isn’t another iteration of spring cleaning that has resulted in the high-level departures of Robbie Bach, Ray Ozzie and, earlier this year, Steven Sinofsky (who was found guilty of Windows 8).
Removing a loyal but obdurate contradictor, sanctioning bad performance and foul politics is one thing. Reshaping the culture of a huge organization (97,000 employees) is a qualitatively and quantitatively different task. Habits of the mind and, even more challenging, of the heart are extremely hard to change. And, certainly, Microsoft’s culture needs an overhaul. It has caused the company to miss or mishandle Search, Social Networks, Advertising, Smartphones, and Tablets, and to make a meal of the latest version of their iconic Windows product.
Can a reorg suddenly bestow the vision and agility to regain lost ground, undo (at least) one bad decision, and also win the next land grab?
In attempting to answer these questions, Ballmer’s memo manages to confuse rather than reassure. In the first place, it’s way too long — over 2,700 words — and points to yet another memo that’s even longer.
The satirical site, Joy of Tech, had its way with Ballmer’s epistle. First, the executive summary…
Then the details (click to enlarge)…
And their effect…
Read both memos and ask yourself two questions: Who writes such corpospeak (or is it copro-speak)? And what does it say about its authors’ clarity of thought?
Despite its length, Ballmer’s pronouncement manages to avoid a fundamental question: What happens to Microsoft if PC shipments continue to fall?
According to the usual suspects, PC shipments fell by 11% this past quarter compared to the same period last year, marking the fifth consecutive quarter of the “longest duration of decline in the PC market’s history.” The state of the economy and the tepid reception to Windows 8 are partial explanations, but the primary reason is plain to see: Android and iOS tablets and (to a lesser extent) smartphones are cannibalizing PC sales.
According to a VentureBeat post:
Tablet shipments are expected to grow by almost 70 percent in 2013, sending desktop and laptop computer shipments into a “nosedive.”
When looking at these numbers we should keep in mind that Microsoft’s Windows 8 “tablets” or hybrid devices are counted as PCs while Gartner and IDC keep separate tabs for the PC-devouring devices, which they gingerly call “media-consumption” tablets.
Let’s take a step back and look at the history of Microsoft’s business model.
The company was reasonably prosperous even before DOS/Windows and Office, but its never-before-seen riches came from a division of labor: PC OEM vassals were left to fight among themselves for market share while the licensing overlord enjoyed monopoly pricing for its Windows + Office sales. (When Ballmer cheekily says ‘We’re all about choice’, he means the choice between PC makers racing to the bottom, not choice between Windows/Office and alternatives.)
After Local Area Networks (remember The Year of The LAN?) and then the Internet emerged, the company looked invincible. The Windows + Office stronghold yielded a natural tie to Exchange and Windows Server products.
With this in mind, the decline in Windows PC/tablet sales are bound to have a cascading effect on Microsoft’s business. Fewer PCs means smaller Windows licensing revenue and, in turn, diminishing Office dollars. The once powerful tie-in between Windows and Office now turns against Redmond.
And the cascade continues: Smaller Office volumes result in lower demand for extremely high-margin Exchange and Windows Server products. In the meantime, non-Microsoft tablets and smartphones continue to invade formerly Microsoft-only Enterprise customers. The erstwhile truism You Won’t Get Fired For Buying From Microsoft has lost its lustre. Permission is now granted to buy from interlopers.
Microsoft greased this downward slope by clinging to its tactic of always having it both ways; that is, doing something new while preserving backwards-compatibility. The approach has been successful in the past… but it foundered Windows 8 and tablets. The step into the future was a different touch-based UI; the foot in the past was the old desktop User Interface. For customers, the result was confusion and frustration; for PC manufacturers, the outcome was lower than expected sales.
Google and Apple took a different route: Instead of shoehorning a desktop OS onto less-powerful and battery-constrained hardware, they designed operating systems that easily slide into the slimmer, sexier footwear. Under the hood, we see a similar “from scratch” approach: Tablets and smartphones aren’t just “smaller PCs”, they’re target-specific devices built around custom (System On a Chip) processors.
The market has voted: Tablets that are just tablets are trouncing Microsoft’s hybrid tablet/PC devices.
To reverse this downward spiral Microsoft needs to come out with a real tablet, not the insincere and unsuccessful ARM-based Surface RT device. This means a tablet that’s powered by Windows Phone with Office applications that are specifically, integrally designed for that OS. Once this is done, why not go all the way by selling iOS and Android versions of the same productivity suite? This would protect the rest of Microsoft’s Enterprise ecosystem, and would be much better than today’s half-baked Office apps on the iPhone, or their absence on the iPad and Android devices.
We’ll see if the new Microsoft regime can really Think Different.
PS: Only for the technically inclined, Drew Crawford’s learned, articulate post on the effect of small RAM size on mobile device system and application software. As this long post attempts to cloud the Web vs. Native apps discussion with facts, it brings up a little-discussed fact: PCs easily offer 8Gb of RAM (as opposed to SSD “disk space”), but mobile devices are generally limited to 1Gb or less because RAM needs to be always powered on, thus limiting battery life. This significantly smaller RAM fundamentally impacts the design of the system and application software. Mobile OS and apps are not like PC products only smaller.
In a bold move, Microsoft acquires Nokia and catapults itself to the top of the smartphone world. The full integration of Windows Phone 7 software into Nokia hardware will result in a better user experience for customers, a zero-fragmentation platform for developers, easier deployment of a smaller number of SKUs for retailers, and more reliable update management for carriers.
It’s worked before. Microsoft’s hardware/software integrated devices, Xbox and Kinect, are enjoying strong revenue growth and great margins: $1.9B revenue last quarter, 50% more than last year, with 10% operating profit.
In a prepared statement, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer says:
‘I welcome Stephen Elop back into my executive staff. His brief leave of absence has allowed us to more fully explore the possibilities of combining the best smartphone hardware, Nokia’s, with the best OS, Windows Phone 7.
Google’s anticompetitive Android free and open licensing practices unfairly tilted the playing field against our better product; they made it impossible for us to sell Windows Phone 7 software. Instead, we‘re now ready to do battle with Apple from a superior position: a stronger product carrying the Windows Everywhere flag, wider carrier distribution around the world, and more retail partners in US, Europe, and BRIC nations. With our acquisition of Nokia, we’re now a $100B company, back where we belong: at the top of the high-tech industry.’
When I woke up, I heard a different story: Microsoft bought Skype for $8.5B.
We all know Skype: free voice and video calls from computer to computer, plus paid services if you need to dial a phone. As Skype prepared for its long-awaited IPO, we got financial data from their S-1 filing with the SEC. S-1s are always instructive: This is usually the first time a private company opens the kimono — and the SEC watches closely as you prepare to sell shares to widows and orphans.
The Profit & Loss statement in Skype’s S-1 looks like this:
With revenue of $860M in 2010, Skype’s Operating Profit is a modest $20M, with a Net Loss of $69M due to interest expenses stemming from $686M in long-term debt. Except for in 2008, when they saw a $42M profit, Skype has racked up huge losses, including $1.4B in 2007 and $370M in 2009.
(Technically, these figures straddle two different corporate structures because of Skype’s complicated history. Started in 2003 as an independent European company, Skype was acquired by eBay in 2005 for a price pegged between $2.6B and $3.1B. After the acquisition, eBay discovered its ownership of Skype was “encumbered”: A crucial piece of Skype’s technology was owned by another company, Joltid, which was essentially in the hands of Niklas Zennström, one of Skype’s founders. eBay settled with Joltid for about 14% of Skype. This caused wags to say the crafty Skype founders sold the company twice — and it certainly didn’t make the ex-management consultants running eBay look so sharp. In 2009, eBay sold 70% of Skype to private equity and venture investors in a transaction that valued the company at $2.75B.)
Why did Microsoft pay $8.5B — 10 times the company’s revenue — for a business that has changed hands so many times, never made money, and comes with substantial debt? (Admittedly, the $686M debt number is manageable — for Microsoft).
One eloquent answer comes from Ben Horowitz, a partner at the Andreessen Horowitz venture firm started by Netscape’s founder. Horowitz invokes the network effect: A large number of users attracts more users and so on, in a kind of gravitation well:
– 500,000 new registered users per day
– 170 million connected users
– 30 million users communicating on the Skype platform concurrently
– 209 billion voice and video minutes in 2010
And he concludes:
Today, I tip my hat to an old rival, Microsoft. By acquiring Skype, Microsoft becomes a much stronger player in mobile and the clear market leader in Internet voice and video communications. More importantly, Microsoft gets a team, ably led by the exceptional Tony Bates, that can compete with anyone.
Well, this is a nice encomium to the guys who transformed the venture firm’s $50M investment in Skype a few months ago into a $150M payday. My own venture investor hat is tipped to MM. Andreessen and Horowitz.
But not so much to Steve Ballmer.
Looking at Microsoft’s recent quarterly numbers, we see the continuation of a now old and getting older tradition: losses in the Online Services Division. Only a few weeks ago, TechCrunch wondered: When Will Microsoft’s Internet Bloodbath End? Business Insider provided a vivid illustration for the problem:
In just the past 12 months, Microsoft has lost $2.5B in its Online business. They spend $2 to make $1 in revenue. Buying and “integrating” Skype will make the picture even redder.
So, again, why spend $8.5B on Skype?
The official explanation is that Skype will be targeted at professional users. For these, Microsoft already has a product called Lync, although not many have heard of it. And they have Messenger for consumers. (Actually, it’s Windows Live Messenger for Windows and Microsoft Messenger for the Mac.) I don’t think it’s unfair to ask how, how well, and when Microsoft’s Grand Unified Messaging platform will effectively exist, and how it will be monetized.
Given Microsoft’s track record, there isn’t much evidence of its ability to perform such integration, nor of its ability to move a big platform forward at a competitive pace, certainly not faster than what Google seems able to do with Google Voice, Talk and Google Video for Business.
The theory must be that every Windows PC will come with “Skype inside.” But that isn’t much progress: There are already 170 million connected Skype users, and 500,000 new registrations everyday. And imagine how carriers will react when they see a Skype client bundled with every Windows Phone 7 device, further pushing them towards their preordained destination: dumb pipes.
Today, Skype is joyfully used in both consumer and business environments. It’s not perfect, but the price is right and Skype is now a verb. The next thing we know, Microsoft will take a good if imperfect service and “improve” it by integrating it with Office or SharePoint (a good product on its own). And, at some point, Microsoft will try to make us pay for it. In more ways than one.
But, again, the history isn’t there. Microsoft’s ability to successfully charge for a formerly free product is lacking.
Reactions to the Skype deal have been negative, if not downright derisive. Many see the Skype acquisition as more evidence that Microsoft can’t innovate, or even effectively copy and out-implement anymore. One local exec asked, rhetorically, how much it’d take to re-implement Skype. $100M? $1B? It’s not a question of money. Microsoft spends tons in R&D: 15% of sales, about $9B per year. (Apple spends 2% of revenue, less than $2B.) Think of iTunes: it’s been out there for close to ten years and there’s no iTunes clone coming out of Redmond. Microsoft has to buy what it no longer has the people or the culture to create — or copy.
David Pogue, the NY Times’ tech guru, thinks this acquisition will go where so many went before: to failure by mediocrity and to poisoning by matrix management.
Ben Brooks, a Microsoft shareholder — and not the disgruntled kind — comments on the Skype deal and concludes: The Ballmer Days Are Over. Perhaps, but who can tackle the job of turning Microsoft around?
In last year’s May 30th Monday Note, I wrote Ballmer had opened the “Second Envelope”. He was running out of explanations: first blame your predecessor, then fire a few subordinates. Next, you’re out of excuses and out the door.
Since then, a few more subordinates have decided to “spend more time with their families”: CTO Ray Ozzie, who wrote a long, long farewell memo (don’t do that, it doesn’t make you look good); Tablet executive Bill Mitchell; Bob Muglia, President of the Server and Tools Division. We’ll exclude Stephen Elop, the President of the Business Division who went on to rescue Nokia, as he might have left of his own volition — or of his seeing Ballmer looking for the next excuse.
Last year, I noted Microsoft’s stock had been stagnant for almost ten years. Things haven’t improved since then:
In the past 12 months, Microsoft’s stock has fallen by 11% while the Nasdaq climbed 25%, Google 7%, and Apple 44%.
Having run out of ideas and envelopes, is Ballmer spending $8.5B of Microsoft’s $50B cash, its biggest acquisition so far, as a desperate tentative to keep the company, or himself, in the game?
Back to the fantasy: Today, Nokia’s market cap is about $32B, a bit less than four times Skype’s price. In theory, Microsoft would have to pay a premium…but imagine Nokia’s situation if Microsoft hadn’t generously “lent” them Stephen Elop and struck a Windows Phone 7 deal “worth billions” to the Finnish company. What would be the market cap for a rudderless Nokia?
And Nokia comes with revenue, about $40B last year. The Nokia Devices and Services business alone makes about $3B in profits per year — almost as much as Microsoft’s Online division lost in 2010.
That would get attention, and credibility, and criticism, and hope. Instead, we got a yawn.
Once upon a time, IBM was The Company, computers had “spindles” and Big Blue salesmen (no females allowed) got fresh collars and cuffs delivered to their desks each morning.
When a pesky innovator came up with an interesting idea, The Company had a response at the ready: You Don’t Need This…We Know What’s Good For You. And when misguided customers were seduced by the heretical product, IBM moved to the next couplet in the hymn book: We’ve been working on this for six years and you’ll have it in six months.
First, deny. Then, embrace.
Microsoft, The Great Learner, sat at IBM’s knee and came up with a similar playbook, their own way to deal with annoying competitors. See, for example, the notorious Embrace, Extend and Extinguish.
Let’s skip forward a few decades.
In 2007, we have Steve Ballmer’s infamous “It’s a passing fad” reply when asked about the iPhone. Then he tells us Windows Mobile would own 40% of the smartphone market by 2012. Windows Mobile ended up being kicked to the curb.
We know what happens with rebounds, they don’t always lead to good decisions. Microsoft’s relationship with Danger (I’m not making up the company name) begat the remarkably short-lived Kin, a strangephone that disappeared from carriers’ shelves in a matter of weeks.
Microsoft sobered up in 2010 and finally announced a serious smartphone platform: Windows Phone 7. But while Google and Apple gathered momentum with their Android and iOS platforms, Microsoft had to buy developer and handset maker adoption. Nothing as untoward as free OS licenses to manufacturers, of course, nor did they pay developers to port/write apps…just big $$ marketing support, you see.
It quickly became obvious that Windows Phone 7 wasn’t a contender, so Microsoft bought Nokia. Sorry, wrong phrasing…they bought “Nokia’s full and sincere commitment” to Win Ph 7. The next chapters of that love story won’t be boring.
In parallel, the iPad happened.
Chef Jobs, in one stroke of his whisk, got the tablet mayonnaise to take, after three decades of clotted failures by the best and the brightest in the computer industry, Apple included.
For years, ever faithful to its Embrace and Extend credo, Microsoft has been going after the tablet market. In 2001, Bill Gates himself made a lofty prediction: “The tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available whenever you want it…It’s a PC that is virtually without limits — and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”
As we know, the Tablet PC never took of, it stayed within the narrow confines of highly specialized applications, but this didn’t quench Microsoft’s enthusiasm. In September 2009, Microsoft opened its kimono one more time, probably forgetting repetition kills titillation, and let the world know about its Courier “project”. In January 2010, at CES, Steve Ballmer was no longer touting the Courier tablet but praising the upcoming Slate from HP.
Asked about his outlook for the future of media by the Washington Post, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer answered this: “In the next 10 years, the whole world of media, communications and advertising are going to be turned upside down — my opinion. Here are the premises I have. Number one, there will be no media consumption left in 10 years that is not delivered over an IP network. There will be no newspapers, no magazines that are delivered in paper form. Everything gets delivered in an electronic form.”
Well, this take is actually pretty reassuring considering the litany of things where Microsoft was dead wrong. Bill Gates was right in two instances (big ones for sure): Windows and Office. On all the rest, it essentially missed the boat: most of the Internet positions — both PC and mobile based — were left to other players. And today, what remains of Microsoft domination is seriously challenged by “cloud” hosted applications. Guess who has the biggest chances to be gone within ten years? By the way, hearing the cling-clung noise of forks and knifes, this semi-amateurish video of Ballmer was taken by a Washington Post staffer. Actually, 185 of them have been trained to use the medium, as explains Chet Rhodes, Assistant Managing Editor for News Video at the Post on Beet.tv.