What the markets are telling Microsoft

Microsoft remains bullish about its attitude to security. The markets beg to differ

Money talks. In particular, money in the stock market speaks eloquent volumes about how companies are perceived. It doesn't matter what analysts, journalists and spin doctors say - cash has the final word.

So it is not surprising that a study from Carnegie Mellon University shows that on the day a security vulnerability is announced, a company can expect its share price to drop by an average of 0.63 percent. Bad news brings you down.

But not, strangely enough, if you're Microsoft. That share price sees a dip of around 0.3, compared to 0.9 for everyone else. The researchers think this might be because people are familiar with Microsoft products and thus don't need to judge them on bad publicity. Or it might be that people are desensitised by the large number and high visibility of Microsoft security alerts. That's more likely.

Burdened with anti-malware programs, endless security updates and zombie-generated spam, the average Windows user has more than enough familiarity with the quality of the software. To put it bluntly, expectations are very low -- and the stock market's weary shrug with each new announcement demonstrates the company's true public image with unambiguous clarity.

Microsoft is notoriously thick-skinned about public criticism. For decades, it has responded to even the best-founded complaints by saying that it is right and the critics are wrong. It can be hard at times to work out whether the company really believes this, whether its reflex denials and aggressive recasting of the facts are so deeply ingrained that it is actually unable to perceive anything else.

Yet even Microsoft doesn't ignore money. It should realise that this anomalous market behaviour is due to a major mismatch between how it thinks of itself and how the rest of the world sees it. With other companies, security problems are seen as an unpleasant surprise: with Microsoft, they're seen as just part of the cost of doing business with Redmond.

This is not healthy, and it shows that despite the recent promotion of security as a key company value the rest of us just don't believe it. Microsoft may treat everyone from users to international courts with equal disdain, but if it carries on ignoring the evidence of the markets it will erode the faith of the one group it cannot afford to alienate -- its shareholders. Their money is talking, and it would be wise to listen to what it says.