The big bad wolf of yesteryear, Microsoft is showing signs of a mid-life crisis

steve-ballmer

In the last 12 months technology shares on the NASDAQ exchange have appreciated by 28%. Apple’s have appreciated by c. +80%, Oracle’s by +40%, IBM’s by +30%. Microsoft’s haven’t: they have gone in reverse by -3.5%. Apple is now valued at c. $100bn more than Microsoft.

It’s not that Microsoft’s results have been so bad. Their accounts would have a finance man purring like a stroked kitten. Microsoft’s tech industry leading 30% net margin on revenue of $62.5bn created $18.7bn of net profit in 2010. Nice.

But these impressive figures hide a break from the past. Bill Gates was always obsessed with winning market share and beating the competition. Nowadays Microsoft is more interested in making loads of money and retaining the status quo. The decline of the Roman empire was exactly the same. This is what the stock market is picking up on.

While rivals such as Larry Ellison at Oracle are still hungry for scalps (for example, he said recently that he was ‘going after’ HP at the top end of the server market, ‘and then we’ll take on IBM’ with his new Sun servers and Exadata), Microsoft has been focusing much of its effort on internal wrangling and re-structuring.

Four of CEO Steve Ballmer’s direct reports have departed since May 2010, including Stephen Elop who left to run Nokia, and Robbie Bach who ran Microsoft’s entertainment division. Three Divisional Heads have now gone (out of 5 Divisions), the most notable being the President of the $15bn Servers and Tools Business (STB), Bob Muglia.

Ballmer’s email to Microsoft employees on January 10th said “I have decided that now is the time to put new leadership in place for STB. This is simply recognition that all businesses go through cycles and need new and different talent to manage through those cycles”. This doesn’t quite square with Ballmer’s letter to shareholders last September that reported ‘outstanding momentum across all our businesses’. The ‘new and different talent’ to run STB is Satya Nadella, a 20 year veteran at Microsoft. He ran the Bing search engine division. A chance to blood new talent has been missed.

The Microsoft mission statement: “to enable people and businesses throughout the world to realize their full potential” lacks real teeth. Previously, one key objective was ‘to take on difficult challenges and see them through to the end’. When Microsoft entered a market it would never let go. It offered a low price point with continually increasing product functionality, the marketing machine kicking in with slick promotions and resellers everywhere. Microsoft’s goal was to become market leader no matter how long it took, and it was a compelling proposition.

Imagine my surprise when they retreated from the performance management market: “we’ve made it clear in the public domain that we’re shifting back, or pulling back… (from) where we were essentially in a competition with the Cognos and Business Objects of the world“ they said. What? Pulling back? Microsoft? Unheard of.

Microsoft’s aura of invincibility has been punctured. Once upon a time, if Microsoft entered a market, existing suppliers knew they were in trouble and clamoured to sell up and get out. Not anymore. Now they fancy their chances of winning against Microsoft and tucking into that soft underbelly of late-to-market indecisiveness that has bedevilled the company in recent years.

The lion needs to wake itself from its gentle slumber, put its teeth back in, get up from its soft bed of grass and go and kill something if it’s going to restore its lost pride of place in the industry. However, a change of leadership may be required at the very top of Microsoft for this goal to be achieved.

Gerry Brown is an analyst (BI and CRM/Digital Marketing) at Bloor Research. Gerry has 25 years of experience in the software and services industry, and has worked in senior marketing and sales management positions for Xerox, Fujitsu Services, Hyperion and MicroStrategy. He was Marketing Director at Hyperion Solutions and Head of Marketing at MicroStrategy. Gerry is also a visiting lecturer for the London School of Marketing and lectures at top academic institutions such as Imperial College and Birkbeck College. He lectures in Strategic Marketing, Analysis and Evaluation, Managing Marketing Performance, and Strategic Marketing in Practice on the Professional Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing course. Gerry is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (FCIM), has a DipM (the equivalent of an MA) in Marketing, and received his BA (Hons) Business Studies degree from Sheffield City University. Gerry regularly presents on behalf of Bloor Research at international business conferences, roundtable discussions, user group meetings, vendor seminars, and Webinars and Podcasts.