Saturday, 14 January 2012

Is Microsoft doomed in its Current Form?

It seems Microsoft has had a dose of reality in the last week. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Tami Reller, the CFO of the Windows division, has warned that PC shipments will be lower than an already gloomy forecast in this quarter. In her case, she put this down to supply problems in the Thai flood regions where the high waters are still causing havoc to component makers, particularly on hard disks. Some UK distributors have plenty of servers but no disks which will impact their sales in the next few months.

Finally, it seems that the penny is dropping at Microsoft. Their figures are actually dependent on the shipment of PCs to a very high degree. I have illustrated before that Windows itself and Office Productivity products constitute the majority of the revenues and profits generated at Microsoft and these numbers are directly dependent on the number of client devices sold into homes and corporates. As PC sales alarmingly decline, so will Microsoft revenues and profits - in their very heartland.

Microsoft is a well spread company, for sure. But with servers taking a decline lately, Windows Server, already under severe attack by Linux, is also suffering. All this is occurring as Apple see sharp increases in the sales of its PC-like devices while tablets and smartphones continue to boom - all these devices coming with largely Apple and Google operating systems.

The threat also is that corporations are wising up. They have paid through the nose for arguably second rate products in their companies for too long. PCs which seem to fail conspicuously in less than 3 years, an operating so clunky it takes 5 minutes to load up each morning, office productivity tools which seem to suspend and crash for no perceivable reason, occupying ever expanding disk space.

Apple may charge top dollar for their hardware but you get a robust operating system, rich in features and free utilities of high quality which takes seconds to load up or resume, no matter what state you left it in. And office suite software is far cheaper with a breadth of products available at below £20 a pop - except Microsoft Office for Mac which is £189 but at least half the price of the PC version and many times better.

The fact is that tablets and smartphones are changing not just the array of client devices and how we use them for home and work but they are changing the way we buy software. Suddenly, we have a plethora, a vast hypermarket of innovative, low cost and clever software available to us that costs just a few pounds to buy. And we buy tons of the stuff. Finally, we are finding there are alternatives to the status quo that has frankly held us back for years in terms of real productivity.

Steve Jobs called it the post-PC era. I would liken it to the IT version of a 'renaissance' as people dream up all sorts of clever software and just punt it out in volume.

But there is a new trend. Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) is the consumerisation of IT. This is the concept that we buy our smartphones and tablets, even PCs ourselves and bring them to work as devices of choice to work with and demand access to the corporate networks and all its facilities and data. In the old days, at job offer time, we were told you would get a salary package and then a PC and phone would be provided. Already in the US, job offers go out with no PC or phone provided but the recruits are invited to bring their own.

This is one reason why Apple as a PC, tablet and smartphone provider and its counterparts in the tablet and smartphone arena are doing so well in the corporate world as users rebel against the constraints of the old PC world and flourish in the new post-PC era.

These are worrying trends for Microsoft. I heard of story of a Microsoft executive going into an Apple store to bait the salespeople with a new Nokia Lumia with its noddy-like tiling on the front having already arrived late and behind the market. It must have been a pathetic sight as an army of Apple customers looked up from their iPhone 4S devices and thought, 'whatever'.

This is part of the problem with Microsoft. This ingrained belief of impregnability and that users really have no place to go, so they swallow whatever Microsoft do and say. It's a Windows world, it's an Office world. The Spanish bank BBVA has proved that this is not necessarily the case in choosing to migrate its entire 110,000 staff to Google Apps for Business after a successful trial - encouraging all their employees to ditch the past. They have embraced the advantage of the Cloud to run their company by allowing the web to be the platform, not the PC which unshackles users from being given sub-standard machines and to choose a device of their own.

15 months ago, I bought the top of the range Lenovo Thinkpad - a great machine in terms of weight, PC sexiness and performance. Its battery life was always rubbish even though it was advertised as 10 hours and even though it runs Windows 7 its performance has degraded over time as I have found with every PC I have ever owned - it's as if they get fatigued from running rubbish software. Yesterday, as I walked into the atrium of a Microsoft building, it literally died. One minute I was looking at the presentation I was about to give, the next it was blank and dead. It still is dead.

In supreme irony, I had my Macbook Pro tucked in my bag (having not wanted to antagonise by using it) and latched onto the guest wifi and loaded up the same presentation from Dropbox. In seconds, without skipping a beat, I hooked up to the projector using my convertor cable and without pressing any button the projector and resolution was detected and my presentation was given. Jaws hit the table when they saw the Mac and I expected to get escorted out by security but when they saw how their own software behaved on a Mac with so many more options on how to run a slideshow from a PC and time your delivery, they were impressed.

But they still don't get it. Even when the graphs point out the clarity of the numbers and trends, they don't seem to get the fact that their very heartland, the core product set of the company is under persistent threat not by their customers but by users. No amount of canoodling with the CIO will make a difference. Users are rewriting corporate policy and deciding the future IT strategy.

I predicted that Microsoft will make a profits warning in 2012 and Keller's announcement prior to Q2 results was seeding some bad news. At some point, a hole will appear in that lucrative area that Microsoft has depended upon for years. If nothing else, the price of MS Office has to collapse in the future - nobody is going to pay the kinds of prices of the past for that product for the future. 

I predict that Microsoft will survive but not in the same form. It will have to radically change and find new ways to make money. Right now, it's not at all clear how they will do that. Is it time for management change? Maybe that's the starting point. 

But what do I know?

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