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Windows 7 is now officially a year old. Since it was released October 22, 2009, Microsoft has sold over 240 million copies of the operating system — approximately seven copies per second. That makes it the fastest selling operating system in Microsoft’s history or any vendor’s history. Some industry pundits estimate that Windows 7 sales will top 300 million within the next six-to-eight months.

Microsoft has plenty of other reasons to celebrate Windows 7’s first birthday. Windows 7 has also been one of the most stable, reliable and secure releases in Microsoft’s history.

A three-quarters majority – 73 percent of the 400+ respondents to the latest joint ITIC/Sunbelt Software poll, gave Windows 7 an “excellent,” “very good” or “good” rating.

That’s very close to the 80 percent majority of beta and early adopters who gave the Windows 7 the same high marks in the 2009 ITIC/Sunbelt Software survey. The latest responses, coming after corporations have used Windows 7 in production for a full year, provides the best evidence that the Microsoft operating system is living up to the hype and fulfilling business’ needs. Only a small three percent minority of survey respondents gave Windows 7 a “Poor” and/or “Unsatisfactory” rating.

Windows 7’s immediate and intermediate future appears similarly rosy: a 72 percent majority of survey participants say they have already deployed, are in the process of deploying or will shortly deploy Windows 7. Only seven percent of those polled indicated that they are “unlikely” to deploy Windows 7 at all and none of the respondents said they plan on switching to a rival operation system.

Lack of funds was the chief reason cited by the remaining 21 percent of respondents who said they have no definitive plans to upgrade to Windows 7 over the next 12 months. Anecdotal user comments confirmed that many companies are still in the grip of a recession and will wait until they upgrade their desktop hardware to migrate to Windows 7.

So great has been the demand for Windows 7, that it has fueled record revenue and earnings for Microsoft over the last three fiscal quarters. Microsoft recorded record revenue of $16.04 billion for the 2010 fourth fiscal quarter ended June 30.
In fact, Microsoft’s financials and balance sheet over the last several quarters is pure gold (see below) and is or should be the envy of just about any business.

Microsoft by the Numbers

Profit Margin: 30.02%
Operating Margin: 39.51%
Return on Assets: 18.82%
Return on Equity: 43.76%
Revenue: $62.48B

Quarterly Revenue Growth: 22.40%
Gross Profit: $50.09B
Quarterly Earnings Growth: 48.40%
Total Cash: $36.56B

Total Debt: $5.97B

Source: Capital IQ

Instead, many industry experts and observers paint a grim picture of the 35 year-old Microsoft in a midlife crisis, well past its prime and unable to compete in new and emerging markets like smart phones, search engines, online search and advertising and the cloud against edgier rivals, most notably Apple and Google. Recent articles have made much of the fact that Microsoft garners far fewer headlines these days – about one-third to one-half as many mentions – as Apple, Dell, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Oracle, Research in Motion (RIM) and VMware to name a few.

Press of course, is relative, depending on the type of news one is generating. Still the prevailing sentiments in the news business are that “No news is not good news” and “It’s better to be damned than ignored.”

Microsoft executives are no doubt grateful that for a change, they are not one of the headliners in the increasingly vitriolic verbal volleyball that characterizes HP and Oracle’s disintegrating partnership. Similarly, press reports about Microsoft and its executives have been remarkably devoid of scandals – such as those that have recently rocked the HP board of directors.

That then begs the question, if Microsoft’s financials are so rosy, its core Windows and Office products in the black and thriving, why then are some industry observers writing the company’s epitaph?

A Tale of Two Microsofts

The answer of course, is that while the numbers aren’t lying, they don’t tell the whole story. For all intents and purposes, there are two Microsoft’s: one is the company that exists in reality and the other exists in the public’s perception. And the two Microsofts are indivisible.

The reality is Microsoft’s core businesses – Windows and Office continue to thrive – for now. The industry however, is inexorably changing. It is morphing from a fixed premises, subscription-based licensing model that has been the foundation of Microsoft’s astounding success and dominance over the past three decades to an increasingly mobile workforce that uses smart phones (Blackberry, iPhone, Android et al); tablets (the Apple iPad) and free Email and applications (Google Mail, Google Docs) to stay connected. In these emerging environments, Microsoft is playing catch-up and struggling to stay relevant as rivals like Google and Apple continually assault its core applications businesses.

It doesn’t help Microsoft’s case when high level executives decide to exit the company “to pursue other interests.” Chief Software Architect, Ray Ozzie, the iconic developer of Lotus Notes, is the latest high profile departure. Ozzie, who was touted as Bill Gates’ successor as Chief Software Architect, announced earlier this week that he was leaving Microsoft. No departure date has been publicly announced and until he exits Ozzie will lend his considerable talents to the entertainment division.

Ozzie’s exit follows on the heels of Robbie Bach and J. Allard’s departures earlier this year as executives in the entertainment and mobile divisions, respectively. Bach and Allard reportedly clashed with Microsoft chief executive and other executives on technology direction. Such divisions were made sharper by the flagging fortunes of Microsoft’s mobile and entertainment initiatives. After suffering the stinging embarrassment of pulling its KIN 1 and KIN 2 phones off the market on June 30, a scant six weeks after the product debuted to near non-existent sales.

The company is now regrouping around the Windows Phone 7, which it is targeting at business users. The new Microsoft mobile OS has garnered good reviews so far, now it has got to get users onto the platform. Microsoft will reportedly spend $400 in a fall and winter marketing campaign throughout the U.S. and Europe. Microsoft has more than just money invested in Windows Phone 7’s success. If it fails to gain tangible and significant traction, Microsoft may effectively be shut out of the lucrative but increasingly competitive and crowded smart phone arena.

Microsoft has other definite challenges – and they are daunting ones. It must:

  • Make more headway in the search market. Bing is a very good search engine and does have traction. The latest statistics released by ComScore earlier this month, show Bing with an 11.2 percent market share. However, that is far behind Google’s 66 percent.
  • Clarify its Azure and BPOS cloud strategies. Microsoft has made significant strides in its cloud offerings and strategies. But its marketing is still muddy. Microsoft must craft a cogent and cohesive cloud strategy and communicate it so that it resonates with the masses of existing Windows customers and potential users.
  • Retain and attract top talent. Truthfully, the number and caliber of executive departures from Microsoft over the past several years has been no better or worse than the majority of high tech firms. But Microsoft is under a microscope and is judged more harshly than most of its rivals. Many of the departures were predictable; coming after decades of tenure and after the executives in question had made millions. That said Microsoft must retain and attract top talent. Easier said than done, I know.

The biggest blow of all of course, was Bill Gates’ decision to retire from day-to-day Microsoft operations to concentrate on his philanthropic pursuits. This is great for Gates and his charities but he’s as close as you get to the indispensable man. Remember how Apple’s stock stumbled when speculation was rampant during 2009 about Steve Jobs’ health? Microsoft has also taken a beating in the press with rumors that Ballmer may leave or be forced out of the top spot. The truth is every high tech firm needs a visible face like Jobs at Apple, the triumvirate of Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt at Google and of course, Larry Ellison at Oracle. Right now, there are no obvious successors or heirs apparent to Gates or Ballmer. For Microsoft’s sake Ballmer should stay at the helm for the time being.

Despite Microsoft’s issues, it would be a big mistake to write the company off. There are lots of positives. They include:

  • Revenue and entrenched market share and continued dominance in the Windows and Office markets which should continue for the next several years.
  • The Xbox Kinect and Windows Phone 7 appear to be gaining real traction.
  • Broad, deep portfolio of cloud products which has shown impressive growth in the past 12 months.
  • Robotics: Microsoft is also a pioneer in another crucial emerging market: robotics. Microsoft’s Surface is a multi-touch, combination hardware/software product that enables users to manipulate digital content via gesture recognition, such as hand signals or real world objects. Available since 2008, it has racked up some impressive wins and is in use at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, select Sheraton Hotels and Harrah’s Entertainment.
  • Security and Reliability improvements in the core Windows products. Microsoft’s 2002 Trustworthy Computing Initiative has been a rousing success. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) Common Vulnerability and Exposures Database (CVE) SQL Server is the most secure of the major database platforms, with the fewest number of reported vulnerabilities associated with the platform since 2002. And the results from the ITIC 2010-2011 Global Server Hardware and Server OS Reliability survey indicate that 86 percent of respondents rate the security of Windows Server 2008 and Windows Server 2008 R2 as either “Excellent” or “Very Good.” Similarly, 50 percent of survey participants indicated that Windows Server security has “improved significantly” while 24 percent say it has “improved somewhat” over the last three years. At the same time, none of the survey participants indicated they were contemplating wholesale defections to rival platforms, although the number of individual users deploying Apple Macs and iPads is on the rise.

There is no question that Microsoft will survive and continue to thrive in its core markets. The looming question is can Microsoft get its groove back to aggressively mount a challenge to Apple, Google et al, in the lucrative mobile, online, entertainment and cloud markets. It must go back to its roots and aggressively play to its strengths. Microsoft’s $36.56 billion in cash should buy a lot of advertising and a lot of talent.

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