Microsoft should have bought a bank
Corporate energies and cash may have been better spent elsewhere
Microsoft is buying Nokia’s devices and services business, and getting access to the company’s patents, for a total of ¤5.44 billion in an effort to expand its share of the smartphone market. Photograph: Reuters
Microsoft’s decision to buy the handset division of Nokia has been greeted in all sorts of different ways, depending on the analyst you speak to. Ever since Stephen Elop moved in 2010 from the software giant to head up the ailing handset and services company, some investors have speculated that a tie-up between the two companies looked likely.
It’s not the biggest deal Microsoft has ever done. In 2011, for example, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer bought Skype for around $8.5 billion, over $1 billion more than he spent today. Unkind analysts speculated at the time that the Skype deal was less about strategic fit and more to do with verb envy: everybody “Googles” and “Skypes” but nobody “Microsofts”. Or if they do they don’t talk about it.
In terms of Microsoft’s annual cash flow and profits, it’s not that big a transaction. In the financial year just ended, Microsoft earned just shy of $22 billion and generated nearly $29 billion in cash flow. Most years, Microsoft simply reinvests that cash in anything other than its own businesses. If it isn’t the biggest financial deal in the world, it certainly carries huge symbolic significance, coming barely a week after the announced retirement of Ballmer.
The speculation surrounding Ballmer’s decision to move on has focused on the rivalry with Apple in particular and, more generally, with Microsoft’s supposed failure to keep up and transform itself into a hardware company. Microsoft’s shares have essentially languished for years. They are currently roughly where they were a decade and a half ago.
Steve Jobs and Apple certainly showed the way with innovation and transformation. It is less clear, to me at least, that the trick is repeatable, particularly in telephony. The smartphone can’t be invented again. Most people seem to have at least two handsets and competition, unlike in the early days of the IPhone, is intense. Just ask HTC - or even Samsung. The rumoured launch of smart watches doesn’t seem to set the heart racing as did the advent of the early iPhones.
I think the critics of Steve Ballmer who lambasted him for not being Steve Jobs were more than a little unfair. Jobs applied his genius, took several huge gambles and won. That is not a sustainable business model in an industry where technological change can wipe out your competitive advantage overnight. It might be that in technology there simply isn’t a sustainable business model: it is all about being lucky - or visionary (perhaps they are the same thing). It is certainly nuts to berate Ballmer for not having perfect foresight. But it is probably fair to criticise Microsoft for being slow. They were slow to recognise the internet and slow to spot that consumer computing was moving from the desktop to portable devices.
Just why organisations become sluggish is not that much of a mystery. Size is always a problem. Committees and meetings are the enemy of innovation. Companies can often simply turn inwards: energy and intelligence is devoted to fighting internal battles rather than the competition. It just seems to be the way things are: size isn’t everything, but it is a huge problem in businesses that need speed and creativity to be the dominant part of their culture.
I wish Microsoft well in its attempts to become a hardware business, a maker of telephone handsets. I just wonder whether its corporate energies and cash wouldn’t have been better spent elsewhere. Maybe it will become a successful maker of handsets; I’m just not sure how much money is left in that business. Microsoft will almost certainly need to do more acquisitions. What would Steve Jobs have done in Ballmer’s shoes?
I guess he would have tried to be different. He would not have adopted the “me too” strategy that seems to drive Microsoft. Perhaps, he would have looked at neglected areas of corporate computing - still Microsoft’s domain - rather than the consumer market, which now looks rather saturated with products and competition.
In the corporate world, is there any sector ripe for technological innovation that hasn’t been able to do it? Who traditionally spends a lot of money on technology but has been severely cash constrained in recent years? Who has fallen behind and could do with a heavy injection of technological innovation and spending to steal a march on competitors? If I was Ballmer, I would have bought a struggling bank, not a struggling phone company.