Why Microsoft won't sell off Bing or Xbox

A new Nomura Research report calls for Microsoft to get rid of Bing and/or Xbox in the name of maximizing shareholder value. Here's why I'm doubtful either move will happen.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

Influential and long-time Microsoft analyst Rick Sherlund argued in a May 28 research report that it's time for Microsoft to get rid of Bing and/or Xbox.


The title of Sherlund's note -- "Pressure Building to Realize Greater Shareholder Value" -- makes it plain where he's coming from.

"We think there are a number of things that could be done to improve the return of cash to shareholders and improve the profitability and cash flow of the business," Sherlund, an analyst with Nomura Research, said in the note. He added, "We think there is likely to be a more substantive catalyst for change than we have seen previously in the history of the company, and there may be a more receptive group of frustrated shareholders to leverage in an effort to drive greater realization of shareholder value at Microsoft."

(The latter sentence refers largely to a recent purchase of one percent of Microsoft shares by ValueAct Capital, which recently disclosed a 1 percent position in the company. By Sherlund's calculations, this could make Value Act the 17th or so largest shareholder in Mirosoft. Chairman Gates owns 4.8 percent of the company's stock and CEO Steve Ballmer owns another 4 percent "and tends not to sell," Sherlund said.)

Sherlund called for Microsoft selling or even just "giving" Bing to Yahoo or Facebook to eliminate its operating costs and monetize traffic that its products and services can drive to Bing. He said Microsoft could derive more value from Xbox by selling it to a consumer electronics company like Samsung or at least spinning it out as a separate company. And he threw in for good measure that it's high time for Microsoft to release Office for non-Microsoft platforms like Android and iOS and generate profit from its office-suite franchise.

While reading Sherlund's note, I kept chanting "devices, devices, devices" (and "services, services, services") in my best Ballmer impression.

Microsoft is in the midst of trying to remake itself into a devices and services company, as we've all heard by now. Xbox -- along with Surfaces, Perceptive Pixel displays, and Windows Phones -- are the "devices" here, as are the tablets, PCs, phones and other tables, PCs, tablets, embedded devices and other third-party products running some variant of Windows. Non-Windows devices also are endpoints in the new Microsoft world. The Office team is believed to be readying Office for iPad and Android, maybe sooner than the second-half 2014 date I saw on a Microsoft roadmap.

Bing, as I noted just last week, is not so much a Web search engine as a service that Microsoft is integrating into just about all of its software and hardware these days. Despite the doubters inside and outside the company, Ballmer has remained (outwardly, at least) bullish about Bing.

Wall Street has been after Microsoft to dump Bing, which is still in the red, for years. And more than a few financial analysts have been calling for Microsoft to split itself into multiple companies for just about as long.

Ballmer has said repeatedly that the whole "consumerization of IT" trend shows that it's not so easy to simply break the company along the consumer/enterprsie fault line. He's also been trying for years to insure the company hedges its bets with investments beyond its core Windows/Office products by giving possible new cash cows a decade or so to come into their own.

I'm not saying I think it would be impossible for Microsoft to sell off Bing or Xbox. But I think it's highly unlikely. In my view, it' far more likely we'll see Microsoft reorg in a way that reflects its new devices/services aspirations than it is that we'll see the company sell off any of its piece parts.

What's your take?

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