Windows to the future

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Microsoft is many things but it is not loved. The software company’s latest advertising campaign is designed to show that PC users are normal people. It follows another that had to trick members of the public into realising they actually like the company’s software.

Perhaps investors need similar treatment. Since 2002, Microsoft, which reported good first quarter results last night, has more than doubled sales, increased operating profit by 55 per cent and spent a net $77bn buying back its own stock. Yet the share price has moved sideways. The best way to make money has been to buy Microsoft shares as they head towards $21 and sell at $30.

The problem for the Seattle-based group is that it is approaching a crossroads. For decades, it has sold PC users, both professional and consumer, a full suite of products. Yet the future is à la carte. Instead of buying a software licence for everything that might conceivably be needed, customers will pick and choose – a slice of word processing please but hold the PowerPoint. Software will increasingly be offered as a (low-margin) service, run from the internet and piped into the building as necessary.

The shift is equivalent to that from mainframe to personal computing that dethroned IBM in the 1980s and installed Microsoft instead. Bill Gates’s creation has seen off many competitors but has not had to deal with a seismic reshaping of the technology landscape.

The group is anticipating the move by pre-emptively spending billions on remote data centres – racks of servers that power information technology systems and store information – and pushing into ad-funded online services. But these will take years to make a material contribution.

Even so, the industry will also take years to evolve – Big Blue, after all, still makes money from mainframes. Microsoft is diversified and reliable, with $21bn of cash, and armies of software developers to throw at the problem. Trading back down at $22, at 11 times 2009 consensus earnings, investors do not need to be in love to buy it.

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