Steve Ballmer announced he would be retiring as CEO of Microsoft within the next 12 months. This extended timing, rather than immediately, shows clear the Board is ready for him to go but there is nobody ready to replace him.
The big question is, who would want Ballmer's job? It will be very tough to make Microsoft an industry leader again. What would his replacement propose to do? The fuse for a turnaround is short, and the options faint.
Microsoft has been on a downhill trajectory for at least 4 years. Although the company has introduced innovations in gaming (xBox and Kinect) as well as on-line (games and Bing), those divisions perpetually lose money. Stiff competitors Sony, Nintendo and Google have made these forays intellectually interesting, but of no value for investors or customers. The end-game for Microsoft has remained Windows - and as PC sales decline that's very bad news.
Microsoft viability has been firmly tied to Windows and Office sales. Historically these have been unassailable products, creating over 100% of the profits at Microsoft (covering losses in other divisions.) But, these products have lost growth, and relevancy. Windows 8 and Office 365 are product nobody really cares about, while they keep looking for updates from Apple, Google, Amazon and Samsung.
The market started going mobile 10 years ago. As Apple and Google promoted increased mobility, Microsoft tried to defend & extend its PC stronghold. It was a classic business inflection point in the making. Everyone knew at some point mobile devices would be more important than PCs. But most industry insiders (including Microsoft) kept thinking it would be later rather than sooner.
They were wrong. The shift came a lot faster than expected. Like in sailboat racing, suddenly the wind was taken out of Microsoft's sails as competitors shot to the lead in customer interest. While people were excited for new smartphones and tablets, Microsoft tried to re-engineer its historical product as an extension into the new market.
Windows 8 tablets and Surface tablets were ill-fated from the beginning. They did not appeal to the huge installed base of Windows customers, because changes like touch screens and tiles simply were too expensive and too behaviorally different. And they offered no advantage for people to switch that had already started buying iOS and Android products. Not to mention an app availability about 10% of the market leaders. Simply put, investing in Windows 8 and its own tablet was like adding bricks to a downhill runaway truck (end-of-life for PCs) - it sped up the time to an inevitable crash.
And spending money on poorly thought out investments like the Barnes & Noble Nook merely demonstrated Microsoft had money to burn, rather than a strategy for competing. Skype cost some $8B, but how has that helped Microsoft become more competive? It's not just an overspending on internal projects that failed to achieve any market success, but a series of wasted investments in bad acquisitions that showed Microsoft had no idea how it was going to regain industry leadership in a changing marketplace going more mobile and into the cloud every month.
Now the situation is pretty dire, and now is the time for Microsoft to give up on its defend and extend strategy for Windows/Office. Customers are openly uninterested in new laptops running Windows 8. And Win 8.1 will not change this lackadaisical attitude. Nobody is interested in Windows 8 phones, or tablets. This has left companies in the Microsoft ecosystem like HP, Dell and Nokia gasping for air as sales tumble, profits evaporate and customers flock to new solutions from Apple and Samsung. Instead of seeking out an update to Office for a new PC, people are using much lighter (and cheaper) cloud services from Amazon and office solutions like Google docs. And most of those old add-on product sales, like printers and servers, are disappearing into the cloud and mobile displays.
So now, after being forced to write off Surface and report a horrible quarter, the Board has pushed Ballmer out the door. Pretty remarkable. But, incredibly late. Just like the leaders at RIM stayed too long, leaving the company with no future options as Blackberry sales plummeted, Ballmer is taking leave as sales, profits and cash flow are taking a turn for the worst. And only months after a reorganization that simply made the whole situation a lot more confusing for not only investors, but internal managers and employees.
Microsoft has a big cash hoard, but how long will that last? As its distribution system falters, and sales drop, the costs will rapidly catch up with cash flow. Big layoffs are a certainty; think half the workforce in 2 years. Equally certain are sales of divisions (who can buy xBox market share and turn it competitively profitable?) or shut-downs (how long will Bing stay alive when it is utterly unnecessary and expensive to maintain?)
But, there is a better option. Without the cash from Windows/Office, you can't keep much of the rest of Microsoft walking. So now is the time to cut investments in Windows/Office and put money into the best things Microsoft has going - primarily Kinect and cloud services. A radical restructuring of its spending and investments.
Kinect is an incredible product. It has found multiple applications Microsoft fails to capitalize upon. Kinect has the possibility of becoming the centerpiece for managing how we connect to data, how we store data, how we find data. It can bring together our smartphone, tablet and historical laptop worlds - and possibly even connect this to traditional TV and radio. It can be the centerpiece for two-way communications (think telephone or skype via all your devices.) Coupled with the right hardware, it can leapfrog iTV (which we still are waiting to see) and Cisco simultaneously.
In cloud services it will take a lot to compete with leaders Amazon, IBM, Apple and Google. They have made big investments, and are far in front. But, this is the bread-and-butter market for Microsoft. Millions of small businesses that want easy to use BYOD (bring your own device) environment, and easy access to data, documents and functionality for IT, like guaranteed data back-up and uptime, and user functionality like all those apps. These customers have relied on Microsoft for these kind of services for years, and would enjoy a services provider with an off-the-shelf product they can implement easily and cheaply that supports all their needs. Expensive to develop, but a growing market where Microsoft has a chance to leapfrog competitors.
As for Bing, give it to Yahoo - if Marissa Mayer will take it. Stop the bloodletting and get out of a market where Microsoft has never succeeded. Bing is core to Yahoo's business. If you can trade for some Yahoo stock, go for it. Let Yahoo figure out how to sell content and ads, while Microsoft refocuses on the new platform for 2017; from the user to the infrastructure services.
Strong leaders have their benefits. But, when they don't understand market shifts, and spend far too long trying to defend & extend past markets, they can put their organizations in terrible jeopardy of total failure. Ballmer leaves no with clear replacement, nor with any vision in place for leapfrogging competitors and revitalizing Microsoft.
So it is imperative the new leader provide this kind of new thinking. There are trends developing that create future scenarios where Microsoft can once again be a market leader. And it will be the role of the new CEO to identify that vision and point Microsoft's investments in the right direction to regain viability by changing the game on the current winners.
(Adam hartung is the managing director at Spark Partners.)
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