Things got crazy towards the end of Steve Ballmer’s time as Microsoft CEO. One of his dumbest moves was buying Nokia.
Some say the decision cost him his job. That wasn’t all. Last month the software giant wrote down US$7.6 billion it spent buying Nokia.
Until the acquisition, Google, Facebook, Amazon and, most of all, Apple dominated technology news reports and discussion.
They still do. Yet Microsoft is relevant again. In a way the Nokia episode helped the company get back on track, in part by being the catalyst for a much-needed change of leadership. It also helped the company’s top brass focus on where the business is and where it can go.
From the sidelines Ballmer saw Apple win revenue, margin and respect while Microsoft appeared to drift towards irrelevance.
His last roll of the dice was an ill-judged attempt to remake the business in Apple’s image. Hence the talk of “software and devices”.
In itself that was not a stupid strategy. But it ignored Microsoft’s strengths and weaknesses.
Great phones, late to market
Buying Nokia was meant to catapult Microsoft into the phone market. The company’s phones are great. In many respects the Windows Phone operating system is better than Android. I used one for a couple of years, but they were too late.
It then bet on phone and tablet-like touch screens being dominant. It went too far too fast.
Instead of a steady-as-she-goes update to Windows 7 Microsoft went in boots and all with tablet-like touch screen technology for Windows 8.
Microsoft intended the move to be disruptive. In the event it was disrupted.
Buying Nokia was a disaster. Many of the 25,000 employees at the phone maker have lost their jobs. There are empty factories and ghost towns in Nokia’s native Finland.
It didn’t go any better for Microsoft. Almost every dollar it spent has gone down the gurgler.
However, Microsoft was big enough to weather that storm. A new boss, a new direction and a new confidence mean any lasting damage is now safely behind the company.
Microsoft should have known better. Large scale technology company mergers seldom deliver the promised gains. Most destroy value. There are as much about ego or distracting attention with big gestures as about creating fresh opportunities. Savvy investors run a mile when they hear the term synergy.
Microsoft’s Nokia acquisition is the latest in a long string of large-scale technology deals that failed to deliver on promised benefits. Think Oracle and Sun Microsystems.
This year Microsoft wrote down US$7.6 billion on the deal. In effect that means the Nokia mobile phone business is now worthless, a decade ago dominated the market. Blame the iPhone.
- There was some truth in this, but CEO Satya Nadella has Microsoft back on the Cluetrain. ↩
- Lots of users are unhappy about the holes in the Windows Phone app store. Too many “must haves” are either not there, woefully out-of-date or poorly supported. ↩
- Windows 7 was itself a rescue job after the horror of Windows Vista. There’s a lot of truth in the idea that every second version of Windows is a clunker. ↩