Jul 312012

ZDNet columnist Ed Bott is possibly one of Microsoft’s closest followers and among the few to defend Windows Vista, Ed though can’t be faulted for doing the hard yards including reading Microsoft’s stock market10-K  filings.

In their most recent filing, Ed finds Microsoft has used the word “service” 73 times as opposed to 44 appearances last year.

A key phrase in the filing is “a growing part of our strategy involves cloud-based services used with smart client devices.”

This is consistent with the hands on previews of Windows 8 which Microsoft have been giving journalists over the last few months. Something that leaps out is the integration with online services; something that both Google and Apple have also been pushing.

What should worry investors is that moving into services isn’t easy. Service businesses are far more labour intensive and, as a consequence, far less profitable.

Despite having relatively low labour costs, cloud computing services are problematic as many sectors have been commoditised, which is the genius of Salesforce in establishing a profitable niche.

The fat margins Microsoft are used to in their core software business can’t be replicated in the cloud based markets, which is one of the reasons why customers are switching to the cloud.

Microsoft’s problem is shared by telecommunications companies who are finding their cloud offering don’t generate the same ARPUs — Annual Revenue Per User — that they’ve become accustomed to in the mobile phone market. Which means pain for executives whose KPIs are tied to historical performance.

For Microsoft, the problem is compounded by their simultaneous move into hardware with the Surface tablets. Meaning the company’s has to deal with two significantly different business models to the ones they are used to.

Again Microsoft aren’t alone in this, Google is having similar problems adjusting to the hardware market though its acquisition of Motorola Mobility.

Integrating hardware with services and manufacturing isn’t impossible, we only have to look at Apple for how a company can succeed in that space although most managements struggle with the very different demands of each sector.

During the 1980s we saw the rise of the “all business is soap” philosophy where MBAs and management consultants preached that the challenges of running a business were the same regardless of whether you sold cleaning products, soft drinks, computers or automobiles.

Those folk were wrong. Most famously the Australian media company Fairfax hired as CEO a business school professor who preached this philosophy and managed to ignore the rise of the Internet, the echoes of the failed McKinsey ideas haunt Fairfax over a decade later.

While its possible for a software company to succeed at services or hardware, the magnitude and complexity of the management challenge shouldn’t be understated. Both Google and Microsoft will be defined by how well their leaders succeed.

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