That is the question.
As I saw Apple reporting record numbers yesterday, I was reminded that nearly thirteen years ago, Microsoft invested $150m in Apple to help keep it afloat because it needed to maintain the semblance that it had “competitors”? Be careful what you wish for!
In July 1997, prior to the Microsoft investment, AAPL was trading at $4.375 (split-adjusted). Overnight, it was up to $258.00, a 58X gain in twelve and a half years. Had Microsoft held onto its shares, they would be worth $8.8b in the open market today, or 26% of the cash on its Balance Sheet as at Q3/2010.
When Microsoft made its investment, its shares were trading at $17.50, and today? They closed up overnight to $31.50, up almost 1.8X over the same period as Apple’s 58X gain. Apple’s market cap today is $234b to Microsoft’s $275b. How times have changed!
It’s interesting to look at other things that were going on around the same time as Microsoft was investing in Apple.
1997 was also the year that Microsoft entered the mobile device market, with the release of Windows CE. This gave them a ten-year head start on the iPhone and a twelve-year head-start on Android! It predated RIM’s IPO. And today? Windows Mobile market share is Palm-esque, and Microsoft is betting on Windows Phone Series 7 to rejuvenate its mobile business. But if branding and momentum are any indication, it seems like a real longshot.
I’ve sat through many Microsoft Executive Briefings, dating back to 1997. Over this period, I have heard it said that Microsoft spends “$1m/hour on research”. I have seen presentations from Microsoft Research staff describing and demonstrating technologies like ClearType (also announced in 1997), a sub-pixel rendering technology designed to improve readability of rendered type on screen. The obvious application (and one described in the early presentations) was eReaders. In 2007, ten years later, Amazon released the Kindle, ostensibly revolutionizing the delivery of content and forever changing the economics of publishing. Where’s Microsoft at this inflection point? Nowhere to be found.
What other market disruptions has Microsoft missed? (In no particular order)
Search is an obvious one. While Microsoft (and others), was focused on search technology, Google was figuring out that “Search” was all about advertising and catalysed a massive disruption in the media space, billions of dollars in revenue for Google, and hundreds of billions of dollars in shareholder value.
Maps and location services is another one. While Microsoft was focused on producing and selling CDs of MapPoint (a model it still clings to today which it “offers” at $245 on-line), Google was out producing high-resolution street-level images and has catalysed another disruption in location-based services. Today, mobile location is front and center on the Droid platform (and on Droid devices), on iPhones, and incorporated into applications across both ecosystems.
Set-Top Boxes and “owning the living room” Also in 1997, Microsoft acquired WebTV for $503m, predating the launch of Tivo. But while Microsoft apparently struggled with the thought of an appliance that wasn’t Windows-based PC (and encumbered by its emphasis on 3rd-party OEMs to build on its platform), WebTV evolved to MSN TV (anyone remember this?!?) and has completely disappeared today.
SaaS is one to which Microsoft paid lip service throughout the late ‘90’s with its .NET push. But while it was evangelizing .NET (and SOAP, XML, web services), it was acquiring companies like Navision and Axapta (in 2002 for $1.4b) to expand its CRM and ERP offerings. But was it web-based like Saleforce.com which was founded in 1999 and which didn’t go public until mid-2004? Once again, Microsoft didn’t want to jeopardise Windows Server licenses, so it failed to embrace a market disruption despite having ample warning that it was coming.
Media Players created a seismic event and a brand new market that Microsoft completely missed. While it was focused on defending the tight integration of Windows Media Player in anti-trust lawsuits (in a vain attempt to preserve its “Windows” franchise), Apple came out with iTunes on Windows. More importantly, however, was that Apple also created the iPod, the Trojan Horse that enabled the iPhone.
Developers and App Stores: Microsoft has known since the early battles for OS supremacy (against MAC and OS2), that the selection of a platform is driven by application support. Even with a 30-year history of supporting software developers with incredibly rich tools to build 3rd-party apps, Microsoft never provided a route to market for developers as Apple has done with the App Store. Apple also figured out how to monetise content and through the creation of a distribution system (iTunes Store), got people comfortable with micro-payments. What’s the difference between .99 for a song or an app? Ultimately, not a thing.
Obviously, there are other examples too. Microsoft completely underestimated the impact of open-source software, missing Linux, Apache, MySQL, etc. It evangelised tablets, but from a Windows bias. It would seem that Apple (and soon others) will trump Microsoft here as well.
It is fair to say, that Microsoft is losing on all fronts.
While it was focused on fighting the DOJ battle, it may ultimately have lost the war. Some, including “the late Nobel economist Milton Friedman believed that the antitrust case against Microsoft set a dangerous precedent that foreshadowed increasing government regulation of what was formerly an industry that was relatively free of government intrusion and that future technological progress in the industry will be impeded as a result.”
I have to agree. The government’s action against Microsoft was ill-advised, in that it is irrelevant that Microsoft may have had a monopoly on the desktop OS. The market isn’t stagnant. Some, like Apple with iTunes and Google with a toolbar, found ways to work within the constraints of a “Windows monopoly”, and still thrive. Others, like Salesforce.com just changed the rules.
Microsoft once had mojo but, for the past decade, has behaved like a neutered puppy. Where it was once aggressive and nimble, today it is passive and slow.
When Bill Gates relinquished the CEO reins to Steve Ballmer in January 2000, Microsoft’s stock was at around $56. With Steve B at the helm, the company has delivered a -44% return, despite being a cash flow machine and having a Balance Sheet that is (was) second to none.
If a patient’s ECG flatlined like Microsoft’s stock price, someone would call for the crash cart, get out the defibrillator and try to shock the patient back to normal rhythm. Where’s the crash cart in Redmond?
With a record of having missed so many opportunities to create new markets, where does the buck stop?
SteveB or not SteveB? That is the question.
That’s my .02!