The big news in the tech industry today is that Microsoft is buying Nokia’s cellphone business in a $7 billion deal. Only a little more than a week after announcing CEO Steve Ballmer will retire within the next twelve months, this is apparently another step in the massive reorganization of Microsoft and their business model announced in July. In order to better compete in the New World of Technology, Microsoft hopes to emulate Apple’s model of designing and manufacturing both the hardware and software in their products.
What does this mean for the technology industry? Does it change Microsoft’s position in the market significantly? For the short-term the answer is definitely no. The deal isn’t expected to complete until the first quarter of 2014 and will be subject to approval by the shareholders of both companies. Likely too, US and EU regulators will want to investigate the merger and give it their approval. Assuming that the deal is completed by first quarter 2014, the actual work of merging both companies will take a significant amount of time. If any notable changes occur before the holiday shopping period of 2014, I’ll be very surprised. So if the holiday season of 2015 is the first opportunity Microsoft has to truly capitalize on a purchase of Nokia, we must wonder if Microsoft will have any chance of making waves in the smartphone market by that time.
Given the tight relationship between Microsoft and Nokia over the last couple of years – Nokia-brand smartphones account for 85% of Windows phones sold – this deal isn’t really surprising. Nor does it give much reason to believe that anything different will ensue now that Microsoft will officially absorb Nokia’s cellphone business operations. Windows phones did overtake BlackBerry as the #3 smartphone platform recently, but that isn’t saying much as BlackBerry is in a death spiral. Simply purchasing a cellphone manufacturing business doesn’t ensure Microsoft will do any better than they have so far.
What this deal does give Microsoft is complete control over their smartphone platform, which should give them the ability to quickly incorporate new features into Windows phone since they do no longer need to coordinate with their hardware partners. This sounds good, except the fact that Microsoft just wrote off nearly $1 billion of unsold Surface tablets. This debacle shows that Microsoft hasn’t executed well even when they did produce a product of their own hardware design. Do we expect they will do any better now that they will be able to manufacture their own smartphones as well? Or does this simply give Microsoft more rope to hang themselves with?
The only bright spot Microsoft has is their strong cashflow position. Microsoft has the money to throw at their problems and therefore has time to reinvent themselves, even if this takes several years. The only question is will the company that comes out of this be anything like the Microsoft of old? Also if Microsoft isn’t careful, they could blow their cash cows in the next couple of years if they risk everything on Windows, risking the entire company along the way.
So the bottom line is that while Microsoft seems to have figured out that in order to compete in the New World of Technology that Apple is dominating they must follow the rules that Apple has set, this is no guarantee of success. If Microsoft will have any success with their massive reorganization, it will take years to see it bear fruit. This is far too long for any business to wait for Microsoft to get their act together, so business should continue to migrate away from Old World Microsoft technologies without hesitation. If Microsoft ever does create compelling New World technologies in the next few years, business can evaluate those as they would any new technology from any other company.