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It’s Time to Split Up Microsoft

To understand why so many serious Microsoft observers were encouraged by Satya Nadella’s week-ago memo Bold Ambition and Our Core,1 it’s useful to go back 10 years and read Steve Ballmer’s 2004 memo Our Path Forward. It was around this time that cracks were first starting to appear in the Microsoft machine: the stock had been stagnant for going on four years, Windows XP was besieged by a security crisis, and Microsoft was about to announce the reboot of Windows Vista née Longhorn. Meanwhile, the iPod was exploding, and Google’s stock price had quadrupled since its IPO earlier that year on the back of its 85% share of search.

In response, Ballmer said that Microsoft needed to innovate:

The key to our growth is innovation. Microsoft was built on innovation, has thrived on innovation, and its future depends on innovation. We are filing for over 2,000 patents a year for new technologies, and we see that number increasing. We lead in innovation in most areas where we compete, and where we do lag – like search and online music distribution – rest assured that the race to innovate has just begun and we will pull ahead. Our innovation pipeline is strong, and these innovations will lead to revenue growth from market expansion, share growth, new scenarios, value-add through services (alone and in partnership with network operators), and using software to open up new areas. Our focus areas are:

Ballmer then listed 10 different areas of “focus”, the vast majority of which were themselves so broad as to be meaningless. More disturbing than Ballmer’s abuse of the word focus, though was the fact that mobile barely figured in those ten areas. Here is the one mention:

Non-PC Consumer Electronics: The opportunity is virtually unlimited to integrate the richness and intelligence of the PC world with everyday devices such as mobile phones, handheld devices, home entertainment and TV. At the center of our efforts are products such as Pocket PC and Smartphone, Portable Media Center, MSTV, MSN TV, Windows Automotive, the Windows Media Center Extender, and other electronic devices built on Windows CE and Windows XP Embedded.

Even here, mobile phones are only useful insomuch as they “integrate the richness and intelligence of the PC world.” Ballmer and Microsoft simply could not break free of their Windows-first mindset, and while it would be another 3 years before the iPhone arrived, it was this memo and what it represented that marked the beginning of Microsoft’s decline.

The Power of Monopoly

It’s easy to dump on Microsoft now, but even easier to forget just how impressive and seemingly impregnable their core business once was.2 I have written multiple times that tech companies ought to be either vertically/platform focused, with software and services that differentiate hardware (like Apple), or horizontally/service focused, with the goal of offering superior software and services on all devices (like Google and Facebook). To try and do both, as Ballmer explicitly did with his “Devices and Services” strategy, is to do neither well: differentiating your devices by definition means offering an inferior service on other platforms; offering superior services everywhere means commoditizing your own devices. “Devices and Services” was nonsense.

Still, it’s understandable why Ballmer thought differently: Microsoft in the 90s managed to do exactly what I just said was impossible. Because Windows was a monopoly, making their software and services work everywhere meant making them work on Windows. There was no choice between horizontal and vertical, and the company profited fabulously. Over time Microsoft added a server component to this virtuous cycle: people depended on Office, which ran on Windows, and was enhanced by services like Exchange Server, Sharepoint Server, SQL Server, etc. It didn’t matter that Office for Mac kind of stunk; that product mostly existed because of a (failed) attempt to fend off antitrust watchdogs, and it made a ton of money to boot.

This cycle is why breaking up Microsoft, as Thomas Penfield Jackson originally ruled in 2000, would have been truly destructive to shareholder value. The company was strong because its products built on each other, and at the root of that strength was the Windows monopoly.

Microsoft’s Opportunity

Fast forward to last Monday, and the opening of Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference. COO Kevin Turner put up this slide:

Kevin Turner's slide at WPC. Curiously, and in contrast to the rest of WPC, Microsoft has not made Turner's keynote available publicly.

Kevin Turner’s slide at WPC. Curiously, and in contrast to the rest of WPC, Microsoft has not made Turner’s keynote available publicly.

A monopoly that is not.

My first reaction to this slide was quite positive, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think the slide represents Microsoft’s biggest issue moving forward. It’s not that their devices share is at 14% – that’s just a fact, and I applaud the honesty; rather, I’m bothered by the phrase “We have a big opportunity.” For Turner, the opportunity is in growing that 14%. As quoted by Gregg Keizer:

We want to go from 14% to 18%, from 18% to 25%, from 25% to 30%. That’s the beauty of this model … [the opportunity] is much bigger than anything we’ve had in the past.

Turner is still talking about devices, and it’s really too bad, because the real opportunity is in the 86%. Microsoft already has software and services like Skype, Bing, and OneDrive that work right now on 100% of that pie; it’s only a matter of time until the same can be said for Office. That is the opportunity; to even think about the share of devices, particularly at the executive level, is to handicap Microsoft’s greatest chance for growth before it even truly gets started. It’s not just that Windows is no longer Office’s only market that matters; it’s that Windows and Microsoft’s devices focus is actively damaging Office’s prospects.

Nadella’s Memo

And so we are back to Nadella’s memo. In contrast to Ballmer’s anything-but-“focus,” Nadella was quite specific:

More recently, we have described ourselves as a “devices and services” company. While the devices and services description was helpful in starting our transformation, we now need to hone in on our unique strategy.

At our core, Microsoft is the productivity and platform company for the mobile-first and cloud-first world. We will reinvent productivity to empower every person and every organization on the planet to do more and achieve more.

Nadella was clear that focusing on “every person” meant focusing on every device as well:

[Microsoft’s productivity apps] will be built for other ecosystems so as people move from device to device, so will their content and the richness of their services – it’s one way we keep people, not devices, at the center.

This is exactly right. Nadella is making a choice here: productivity as a single unifying principle, and by extension, services based on people, not differentiation based on devices. Moreover, it’s a far more difficult and brave choice – obvious though it may be – than outside observers could likely understand. It was only a little over a year ago that Ballmer declared, “Nothing is more important at Microsoft than Windows.”

Last week, Nadella said “No.”

The Power of Culture

The problem, though, was elucidated by Nadella himself in an interview with The Verge:

At the end of the day, look, any strategy gets eaten for lunch if you don’t have a culture that’s also changing.

Nadella is referencing the famous Peter Drucker3 quote “Culture eats strategy over breakfast”; unfortunately, as we have already seen with Kevin Turner’s presentation, that is almost certainly what will happen at Microsoft. For all the talk of moving beyond Windows (and Windows Phone), I am deeply skeptical that Microsoft can truly pursue its potential as a software and services company as long as Windows is around. Culture is developed over years, and for decades everything at Microsoft was about Windows. Read again Ballmer’s statement:

Nothing is more important at Microsoft than Windows

The problem for Nadella and Microsoft is that ultimately this wasn’t a declaration of strategy; it was a declaration of fact, and facts don’t change by fiat.

Understanding Nokia

This is how one can really understand why Ballmer – over the objection of Nadella, among others – made the disastrously stupid decision to buy Nokia. We now know for a fact that my speculation at the time that Nokia was about to introduce Android phones was spot-on, and the terms of the deal suggest that Nokia was having financial difficulties as well; if Microsoft would have lost Nokia, they would have lost Windows Phone, and Ballmer saw that as a mortal threat. Never mind that Windows Phone is for all-intents-and-purposes already dead; the thing about culture is that it not only eats strategy, it washes it down with a potent mixture of selective facts and undue optimism.

In so doing, though, Ballmer dramatically compounded his 2004 error. When Nadella took over earlier this year Microsoft had not only missed the mobile boat, he was now saddled with a $7.2 billion dollar anchor and 34,000 new employees. That’s the thing about last week’s layoffs: even after shedding 18,000 employees Microsoft will still be about 16% bigger than they were before the acquisition, and still tightly bound to a devices group that is working at diametrically opposed goals from the software and services businesses that are Microsoft’s future.

The Solution

It was just about year ago that I wrote in Services, Not Devices:

The truth is that Microsoft is wrapping itself around an axle of it’s own creation. The solution to the secular collapse of the PC market is not to seek to prop up Windows and force an integrated solution that no one is asking for; rather, the goal should be the exact opposite. Maximum effort should be focused on making Office, Server, and all the other products less subservient to Windows and more in line with consumer needs and the reality of computing in 2013…

As for Windows, let it focus on solidifying Microsoft’s hold on the enterprise (it’s here the need to fight the iPad is most acute), with a nice spillover into Home PCs and gaming, and accept the fact Windows was only ever relevant in the consumer market because nobody got fired for buying IBM.

In other words, keep Windows as a cash cow, but be explicit that the future was in cross-platform services. Unfortunately, this was before the Nokia deal. The effects of that deal – and understanding why it was made – have convinced me that Microsoft cannot truly reach its potential as a services company as long as Windows and the entire devices business is in tow.

In short, it’s time to break Microsoft up.

In 2000, Windows, Office, and Server were a virtuous cycle. Today, Windows and the entire devices business is nothing but a tax. Microsoft is a company that is meant to serve the entire market, and the way to do that is through services on every device. It’s all fine and well to say that you will treat devices equally, but given Microsoft’s history – and the power of culture – I just don’t believe it’s possible.

I would create two companies: the devices side, which includes Windows, Windows Phone, and Xbox, and let them do the best they can to grow that 14%. Heck, make Kevin Turner the CEO. Windows profits will keep the company going for quite a while, and who knows, maybe they’ll nail what is next.4

The other company, the interesting company, is the services side – the productivity side, to use Nadella’s descriptor. This company would be built around Office, Azure, and Microsoft’s consumer web services including Bing5, Skype and OneDrive.6 These products don’t need Windows; they need permission to be the best regardless of device.

Of course, the Windows company does need Office, and Azure, and all the other Microsoft growth engines, and this cleavage would likely hasten Windows’ decline. But that’s exactly why a split needs to happen: anything Office or Azure or Microsoft’s other services do to prop up Windows – that focuses on that 14% – by definition limits Microsoft’s opportunity to address the far bigger part of the pie that ought to be the future.

  1. I’m very puzzled by the URL here: It is “http://www.microsoft.com/en-us/news/ceo/index.html”, which means this email is the de facto home page for Satya Nadella. I presume that won’t be the case forever, but how then will you find this note?
  2. To be clear, from a revenue and profit perspective, the business still is incredibly impressive. Microsoft still makes more revenue and profits than Google. Revenue in particular, though, is trending in the wrong direction, and Microsoft’s decline in relevancy, particularly in the consumer market, is large
  3. Supposedly
  4. One more thing: this devices company would not have killed Nokia’s feature phone business. The “tax” works in both directions
  5. Don’t laugh; the thing with search is that when you reach the tipping point, it can become very profitable very quickly, and Bing is getting closer
  6. Probably the toughest division to split would be the on-premise server groups. On one hand, they make Office go; on the other hand, their incentives and sales patterns aren’t perfectly aligned with Azure and Office 365. I could see arguments on both sides, but would tend towards leaving them with the new Services Microsoft

23 thoughts on “It’s Time to Split Up Microsoft

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  6. The mindset for the 14% is not necessarily about devices but about platforms, which Nadella did emphasize was still core to Microsoft’s strategy. It’s not so much about smartphones or computers but about how many users and developers are dependent on Microsoft’s operating systems and tools. I can see why they have this bias.

    It’s not easy being a valuable services company: just ask Yahoo how it’s going. The success of Microsoft’s services in the past were dependent on the success of its core platforms (i.e. Windows); can Microsoft really succeed as a services company without it? Could Internet Explorer or Office have been successful independent of Windows? I think that’s why Ballmer was so worried.

    Also, you can argue there are economic rents in platforms. High risk sure, but also high returns; whereas it’s not clear just how valuable you can be by focusing on services. Strip Search and Android out of Google — how valuable is what’s left? I don’t know if Microsoft can give up the battle on platforms.

    Finally, I do agree that Ballmer completely overlooked the mobile opportunity. Here’s my story about that from 2006 when I was working in Redmond: http://cornerplay.com/2014/06/01/steve-ballmer-microsoft/

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