By Alex Daley, Chief Technology Investment Strategist
This device is the talk of tech right now:
(Click on image to enlarge)
It is not an iPad, nor is it one of the many iPad wannabes from competitors like Samsung and Motorola. It's a Microsoft tablet. Not a tablet built by Dell or HP or Lenovo running Microsoft Windows, but an actual device built and sold by Microsoft.
The device, dubbed "Surface," has no publicly disclosed release date nor an indication of its price, but it is already making waves because it marks the first time that Microsoft has decided to build its own computer. The apparent decision to jump into the fray and compete head-on with Apple in the tablet market has sparked all sorts of reactions.
On one side of the equation, you have those people who are quick to point to the Kin (a failed Microsoft-built phone for Verizon Wireless) and Zune (a failed portable music device meant to compete with the iPod) as proof that Microsoft doesn't have the internal chops to do hardware right. The design process is different. The supply chain is an entirely new animal for a company used to just packing up software. And the company's DNA just doesn't support it, they say. Plus, what about the current original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that sell Windows machines? Isn't making tablets their territory?
On the other side seem to be boosters of the strategy. The "ecosystem model" has failed, they say. Commodity hardware doesn't deliver. These pundits have been quick to point out that Apple is basically unrivaled in market with the iPhone, with the iPad, and with more traditional computers like the MacBook they make far more money than any other OEM. These people want alternatives to Apple without having to sacrifice quality and ending up with some flimsy, plastic HP notebook and a slow, buggy Agros tablet.
Some in the latter camp even argue that Apple has so decisively run away with both the media and market share that Microsoft is being compelled to change its business model from software-platform licenser. Essentially, it is said, Microsoft has no choice now but to copy Apple.
There is some serious merit to the competitive threat of Apple's integrated model, though it may not be as bad as first thought. According to data from NPD group, Apple is the undisputed champion of mobile computing:
But there is some controversy over how the data are tallied. First, it is units shipped – not sold – and with Apple in control of the overwhelming majority of its supply chain, things like channel stuffing are quite possible. Absent any of that chicanery, though, the big rub with this figure is that it contains tablet shipments as well. Of the 17.2 million mobile PCs shipped by Apple in the first quarter of 2012, a full 13.6 million were iPads.
This means that Apple only ships a handful of traditional computers. Consulting firm Gartner pegs its net share of PCs at only 9.3% of the global market. That's about double where Apple was a few years ago, but it's still small in comparison to the number of total PCs or relative to the double-digit percentages that HP, Dell, Acer, and Lenovo – all of which ship Windows machines nearly exclusively – command of the market. All in, Microsoft still controls 90% of the PC market, and that market continues to grow globally. That does not sound like a situation that warrants an about-face on business plan by Microsoft.
But what about this tablet thing? Tablets are simply a different market than the PC altogether. In that market, the numbers look much different for Microsoft. In the tablet market, Microsoft doesn't even have an entry. The current market share statistics peg Apple's place in that market at a whopping 63%. The remainder is rounded out by Android-powered devices from Amazon, Samsung, Motorola, and the like.
None of Microsoft's largest partners has a stake in the tablet game today. That can largely be attributed to the fact that Microsoft hasn't given them anything to work with – Microsoft Windows is simply not designed to run on tablets today. That, however, is about to change.
The company has made it clear that Windows 8 will be an entirely new animal. It will be optimized for touch screens like tablets. It will have gesture and voice control. It will enable companies like Lenovo and Dell to ship tablets, touchscreen desktops, even living room PCs with similar inputs to the Xbox. So, with Windows 8 just a few months from production, why is Microsoft just now dropping the bombshell that it might compete head-on with Dell and HP, potentially alienating its longtime partners?
The answer may actually lie in another, similar market. The smartphone arena has been equally tough for Microsoft to find its way into. The company came to the market late, with a weak software offering, and relying on its traditional PC business model. OEMs like Dell followed them in, producing early smartphones. But they were universal bombs. That may be because Microsoft's biggest OEM partners make the majority of their sales to businesses, and the smartphone revolution – rather the second leg of the revolution, after the Blackberry and defined by touchscreens – has been about consumers.
In the smartphone game today, the picture looks a lot like tablets: Microsoft's share barely even registers on a graph; Apple dominates as a single vendor; and the collective clout of Android is increasingly powerful.
That's because a rift has opened in the computer market with the introduction of these new classes of devices. The economics of these markets are far different than the PC market, and Microsoft's model has failed to adapt.
While the PC market is going strong, Microsoft likely sees the tablet and smartphone markets as a mix of opportunity and threat to its core business.
If Microsoft does intend to dive into the consumer-electronics business model of the tablet and smartphone, it would certainly not be the first time, as many have pointed out. The company has two notable failures under its belt with the Kin (and all other Windows phones to date) and the Zune. But it has also become the unrivaled market leader in another business very similar to tablets: gaming consoles.
The Xbox has about 47% market share, according to the latest statistics to come out of E3 in May. That's a very similar share to the iPad in tablets. Microsoft makes and sells the console directly, just as Apple does with the tablet.
The comparisons don't stop there, though. The core business model for each is that the device cost is kept as low as is reasonable. In the case of the iPad, prices start at $399 – a huge difference from its average computer cost, which at about $1,200 is nearly double that of HP, whose average computer sells for only $650. The iPad and Xbox both are sold with some individual profit per unit, but the margins are far thinner than they are on the normal sale for each company. Instead, the companies make up for those thin margins in the royalties they get from the sale of media: games, music, movies, etc.
The iPad has iTunes and the App Store. Apple makes about 20-30% of the retail cost of most items sold in those electronic stores. And it has an exclusive – no one else can sell apps to an iPad owner without going through Apple.
The same is true for the Xbox. Xbox has music and movie stores and also offers Netflix and other services for which it collects a bounty for new customers. It also has the Xbox Live gaming service, with millions of subscribers paying a monthly fee to chat and game online with friends and strangers. On top of that, Microsoft collects a royalty from game publishers, just as Apple does for the App Store – in fact, one could argue that Apple grabbed its iPhone and iPad business plans from Microsoft, just as Microsoft is regularly accused of stealing ideas from Apple.
The result is that the companies keep margins high by encouraging customers to consume lots of paid content over the multiyear lifecycles of the devices, helping to boost revenues and lift margins as little work is needed to collect a share of those sales.
Since the introduction of the iPad, Apple's quarterly sales have tripled. Even at its size, the company has posted a 41% annual growth rate for the past five years... Microsoft, just 6.76% in the same period.
What growth Microsoft has seen has primarily come from the Xbox's "Home and Entertainment" division. That unit, mostly driven by Xbox, accounts for about $1.9 billion in quarterly revenues, less than half the value of Windows.
Thus, for Microsoft – whose goal like any other company is to grow revenue – the tablet opportunity must seem very compelling... especially when you consider that the market, only two years old in its current form (tablet computers have come and gone for a number of years, but only since the iPad have they become popular enough to be considered a market unto themselves), has proven itself to be much larger than the game console market. After seven years on the market, the Xbox 360 has sold only 67 million consoles. Apple hit that same threshold – 67 million units shipped – in April 2012, just two years after the release of the iPad. At the current rate of sales, it should double that number in the next 18 months. (It took Apple three years to sell 67 million iPhones and 24 years to sell that many Macs).
For any business to have sufficient impact on Microsoft's top line, the company has to be able to add $3.5 billion/year in revenue, or 5% of the total. Anything smaller than that would hardly register in its sales totals; even a $250 million annual business is only one-third of 1% annual growth. To really make a difference, it has to be worth four times that, or $14 billion per year. Few new businesses can do that. Microsoft makes $20 billion or so per year off of Windows. It makes even more than that from the sale of software like Office that runs on Windows. The home and entertainment division is now right up there for the company. So what's next?
Well, Apple is poised to make more than $25 billion this year on the sale of iPads alone – over 25% more than Windows is bringing in for Microsoft. And that is before the value of the game and media revenue shares it takes in... all with just one-fifth of the volume. Apple makes a similar gross income from the sale of iPhones – again, before software and royalties.
To Steve Ballmer, those must look like very compelling businesses. The appearance that tablet and smartphone sales haven't hurt PC sales probably adds much to their allure.
But their OEMs will see every tablet that Microsoft sells as one they don't. So the company is hedging its bets. It will allow those companies to get into the tablet game, even chopping the price of Windows for those smaller devices, as it has for Nokia on the phone as well. But the company isn't going to sit around and hope its OEMs sell five times the tablets as they do PCs, like Apple – that would just not be possible – in order to make as much as it does from Windows today in the new market. Instead, it's going to play both sides of the fence.
In theory, if Microsoft's tablet can sell nearly as well as the iPad, it only has to sell one for every four copies of Windows it does not sell to make up for the lost revenue. However, evidence suggests that tablets are a separate market. Thus, that kind of drop in Windows sales won't happen unless one of its partners walks away. Can HP, Lenovo, or Dell afford to stop selling Windows machines? Not a chance. Those companies are captive.
Moreover, they have failed to break into the consumer-electronics market where Microsoft has succeeded at least once with its Xbox. Microsoft will give them another chance with Windows 8... but they all have seen this movie before. The company has been down the road of trying to apply its Windows model to the phone business. Many years in, it has failed completely. Even its most recent salvo with Nokia is rapidly showing signs of not being nearly enough.
The consumer-electronics market is the proverbial forbidden fruit on the tree (wasn't that mythical fruit itself an apple too?) for Microsoft. But it can only go so far before it gets caught.
However, the company is cash rich, has its OEMs relatively captive, and is in search of new multibillion dollar opportunities. Apple has shown that it's possible to grow similar businesses to Xbox without hurting core PC sales, and one has to imagine that Microsoft is very excited about that. By playing both sides of the fence, the company may see more success than it has with phones, where it held to the Windows business model dogmatically while the market opportunity marched right on by.
Who knows, maybe the company will end up buying RIM and/or Nokia, giving itself the manufacturing capability to go head to head with Apple. With $60 billion in cash on its books, Microsoft has enough to buy both companies four times over at their current market caps. Of course, that's just wild speculation... but proposing that Microsoft would skip its OEMs and go right to the tablet market with its own device would have been equally as wild a thought just a few months ago.
The Surface is only a minor threat to Microsoft's core business, while it's a huge opportunity to build shareholder value – but only if the company is willing to go all in and market the device heavily. Otherwise, tablets will only be a small add-on business to Windows, even if Dell, HP, Lenovo, and the like wipe the floor with the iPad come Windows 8. And it will be more of the same, single-digit growth for the Redmond software giant.
Microsoft's foray into the computer-tablet market promises to capture more and more headlines in the world of tech – just as Facebook's IPO and Netflix's decision to kill Qwikster did.
And while major stories like these are important, they tend to deflect investor attention from other opportunities in tech that hold far more promise. Those opportunities, as is so often the case, are found in little-known companies working on breakthrough technologies in myriad realms – everything from treatment of diseases to quantum physics.
Alex Daley, editor of Casey Extraordinary Technology, analyzes hundreds of such companies every month, looking for diamonds in the rough that offer investors the chance to make outsized rewards. For more from Alex, check out his recent radio interview on the Financial Sense Newshour.
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Scientists Identify Protein Needed to Regrow Injured Nerves (Science Daily)
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Hints of a Higgs discovery began to surface in December of last year. Now the physics community is ablaze with new rumors that it might finally have really been discovered. According to mathematician Peter Woit, "The bottom line though is now clear: There's something there which looks like a Higgs is supposed to look."