Live? Yes, but just barely...
The news is not good for MSFT. Among their conclusions:
Looking at trends from the past year, a couple of things are apparent. First, Google continues to grow at a faster rate than its its competitors. All three metrics firms reported significant gains for the company since the beginning of 2006. Second, all the time and money that Microsoft has invested in growing MSN is not paying off.
Ballmer's fanciful view of MSFT's past track record on "investments" aside, that "not paying off" part could be said of MSN generally and since inception. However, in this case, they mean the massive extra transfusions of "time and money" pumped in more recently to bolster Search/Advertising. Here's their concern pictorially:
The prognosis is never rosy when flatlining would represent a dramatic improvement. Now, admittedly, that's the worst-case scenario - a 45.6% drop in market share in one-year. It might be a lot better - just a...er, 20% loss (guess which one the VPs are going with for their own performance reviews?):
MSN started out 2006 with between 11 and 12.44 percent of the search market, according to the three metrics firms. Since that time MSN's search traffic has seen a steady downward trend. According to Net Applications, its search traffic has almost been cut in half, handling just 6.76 percent of all queries in January 2007. That's a 45.6 percent drop in a year. The picture painted by comScore and Nielsen/NetRatings is a bit better, but not by much: they show MSN search usage dropping by nearly 20 percent.
Hmm...this doesn't sound much like Ballmer's recent characterization of their efforts in this space:
And in a sense you could say it is impressive what a great job we've done coming so much later in the cycle in terms of the innovation, and frankly with the team today that is still smaller than the Google team, so we continue to ramp.
But maybe the "sense" he's referring to is "nonsense".
All of which perhaps explains the timing and tenor of Friday's statement by UBS analyst Heather Bellini, detailed here:
Analysts generally tend to mince their words, especially regarding stocks they have "buy" recommendations on (or where their firms hope to do/continue doing investment banking). Which makes Bellini's statement - that MSFT is "massively underperforming" against the competition - about as in-your-face as it gets. Sadly, it's also accurate.
Her firm adds the worldwide perspective:
According to UBS, Google's worldwide search query market share grew from 56 percent to 65 percent between August 2005 and December 2006. At the same time, Microsoft's declined from 11 percent to 8 percent, even though the company launched its rebranded and revamped Windows Live Search during this period. UBS cited research from comScore Networks Inc. for this data.
In dollars, that translates as follows:
Google continues to be number one in worldwide online search revenue, taking US$10.5 billion of the $24.5 billion online advertising market in 2006, according to UBS, citing figures from ZenithOptimedia and company reports. Yahoo came in second with $5.6 billion in revenue, while Microsoft was a distant third with $1.6 billion online advertising revenue in 2006.
Indeed, she's apparently so concerned that the patient may go into full cardiac arrest (along with her credibility), that she even wades in with some helpful CPR suggestions of her own:
Quoting research that only one in four people who purchase Windows also buy Microsoft's Office desktop application, she suggested Microsoft should offer an ad-supported online version of Office for free to customers who don't purchase Office to boost its ad revenues.
Microsoft also should leverage its strong position with large enterprise customers and strike deals to distribute its Windows Live Toolbar and Windows Live Search as the default in applications, Bellini said. She likened such a deal to one struck between Google and Dell Inc. to preload Google Desktop on Dell PCs and add Google Search in a side pane on Internet Explorer.
Another analyst offers this gem:
Additionally, Microsoft should "push the regulatory envelope" to see how far it can go with legally integrating its Windows Live Search and Toolbar with its own software products, Schachter said.
Yeah, pushing that "regulatory envelope" worked out real well for MSFT and its shareholders previously. UBS's suggestions also raise some concerns. For one, their "research" appears to overlook corporate "home-use" rights (which entitle many to run Office at home w/o buying it separately) and piracy. It also sounds dangerously close to investment genius Peter Lynch's final stages of "deworsification", whereby a company ends up giving away the very product that made it successful in the first place.
That said, I agree that MSFT needs to be more creative with Office (or Office-lite) in the consumer/small business space (GOOG isn't going to leave it any choice). I also agree that if MSFT could fix its advertising problems (huge "if" given the above), then ad-supported Office - and many other MSFT products - might not only be attractive to customers and useful competitively, but also lucrative. I mean, forget the list prices quoted at your local computer-retailer for a moment; The bulk of Windows and Office goes out heavily-discounted via OEM, the "don't ask, don't tell" Student/Teacher retail edition of Office, and corporate licensing programs. With upgrade cycles now routinely stretching to 5 years and beyond, how much do you have to generate in annual advertising per user to be ahead over say, a two-upgrade timeframe? And, of course, "free to me" likely results in much faster adoption cycles and lower marketing costs. Then again, so would more-compelling and better-marketed products :-) The risk inherent in such a strategy is obvious: any "free" consumer/small business could bleed over and/or otherwise pressure the current huge margins enjoyed in the Corporate space. But hey, either you start obsoleting yourself, or somebody else eventually will - and you might even discover a more lucrative market along the way (though given MSFT's current high margins, that will likely have to take the form of larger addressable market and/or faster growth rate).
Adding to this generally negative tone, we get word that VP Blake Irving - head of Windows Live Platform Group - is resigning after less than a year on the job (Ah, but what a year it was judging from the stats above):
Of course, maybe that's a good thing - I really don't know.
On a brighter note, I've mentioned before that I was impressed with the recent webcast delivered by Steve Berkowitz. Unlike the empty bravado, spin, and generally content-free nature of too many MSFT executive presentations, this one provides a humble, honest and detailed assessment of the market, including thoughts on where it's going, competitive landscape, opportunity areas, and - gasp - the potential in dollars. It also gives some insight into MSFT's resultant strategy which is customer-focused. How refreshing. Excerpt:
We're going to build the best software, we've always done that historically, but the challenge for us now is to realize that we have to build the best experience, and we have to earn it every single day, because the cost of switching, especially in search, is very low.
Of course, whether he and the rest of the team will be able to actually deliver is TBD. But at least he seems to have a solid understanding of what it's going to take. Also, echoing earlier comments from MSFT's Erik Selberg (kudos, btw, for being so boldly honest there) - and unlike Ballmer, he was candid that things would get worse before they got better (this was December):
And I hope you'll start to see that by the end of our fiscal year, and going into next year we'll start to see ourselves leveling off and gaining share, both in search and across other properties.
While I don't fully buy into the hype that currently surrounds web-advertising (have you ever clicked on an Internet ad? I never have), this is not a battle where MSFT can afford to be a distant also ran. Keep in mind that GOOG's various current ad-supported software offerings (and even much-rumored Linux-based cloud OS) don't have to win to hurt MSFT materially. The latter can be accomplished by simply taking away pricing power and growth - as Open Source has already done to some extent.
So what if Berkowitz ends up being wrong, and the envisioned turnaround isn't apparent by Fall? Then, imo, MSFT is likely in serious trouble and had better be prepared to consider drastic alternatives. The current pundit favorite is to buy YHOO, but that's far from a guaranteed panacea. First, while it would be accretive, it would be very expensive (especially given YHOO's recent, impressive stock recovery), take a long time, and be extremely disruptive (two very different technology platforms). Second, MSFT would likely screw it up - as they have many other previous acquisitions (and this would be their biggest ever). Meanwhile, GOOG would gain traffic during the initial uncertainty, and then again later as the scope of the resulting mess became evident. The only way I could see this working, is if MSFT bought YHOO but left them completely autonomous - and you know they never do that for long.
That leaves MSFT with seemingly two other options: partner, or throw in the towel and outsource to YHOO for a cut of the action. Partnership hasn't worked so far, and the nature of current market segmentation leaves only a few logical choices. But with others also losing share, maybe it's time to revisit that (or consider partnering with non-traditional players). Outsourcing, on the other hand, would catapult YHOO into serious contention against GOOG, could be done more quickly, and would be less disruptive. Moreover, YHOO has shown the ability to at least hold share against GOOG. For MSFT, it would obviously be a huge admission of defeat (or maybe pragmatism), and the company would lose direct control of its destiny in this area. But, it would save a ton of expenses, and sometimes a share of something is better than 100% of nothing. More importantly, YHOO hasn't shown GOOG's same desire for world-domination and/or determination to go head-to-head with MSFT by offering "free" (or low-cost) alternatives to the bulk of MS's core software stack.
Bottom line, MSFT needs to start showing success on the current strategy ASAP. At this point, that's our best scenario and there's still an outside chance it could happen. Failing that, it's time to acknowledge the wisdom of the adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend"...