[The launch of the Lumia line marks the pivotal point in the Microsoft-Nokia partnership. But how successful will it be? VisionMobile Strategy Director Michael Vakulenko voices his concerns about the partnership between Nokia and Microsoft.]
[updated] Nokia and Microsoft are fighting two very different battles: Microsoft is trying to protect its aging PC software licensing business. Nokia, on the other hand, fights to survive as a as a handset manufacturer, hoping to see profits of the smartphone business. There is one thing in common, though: Both were disrupted by fundamental shifts in the mobile industry.
The basis for competition in software and mobile has changed – the once-successful business models of Microsoft and Nokia can no longer ensure profitable growth. The partnership between the two companies cannot change that. Vic Gundotra of Google once cynically said that two turkeys don’t make an eagle. Or do they?
Microsoft: A PC company in the mobile age
Reports about “Microsoft making more money on Android than on Windows Phone”, make for a catchy headline, but miss the point. Microsoft’s mobile strategy is about reducing ecosystem churn, i.e. protecting revenues from Windows and Office licensing. Every iPhone or iPad sold, represents a user who might choose to move away from a PC or Office license. Every iPhone developer represents a developer who adds value to Apple ecosystem and not Microsoft’s.
As of January of 2012, Microsoft Windows & Windows Live, Server & Tools and Business divisions were responsible for over 75% of the revenues, but, more importantly, practically all of the operating income. The company reported weaker than-expected PC demand in the last quarter of 2011. Revenue of Windows & Windows Live Division fell 6 percent year over year (and this is during the lucrative holiday quarter!), and yet worse – operating income declined by 11 percent.
The company’s core business is challenged at multiple levels. iPhone and iPad users are increasingly choosing Mac as their next computer – Mac success means less Windows licensing revenues. Moreover, tablets are displacing netbooks and laptops, which were the hope of the PC industry until recently. Google and a slew of Internet startups are opening cracks in Microsoft Office defenses by pushing migration of productivity tools into the cloud. The end result is ecosystem churn, which means less and less Windows and Office licenses sold.
Microsoft badly needs to renew its growth. See this excellent analysis by Adam Hartung, Forbes. But, Windows Phone is a “loss leader”, not a growth engine. It’s daydreaming to expect that Windows Phone license revenues will be able to pay back all the investment that was made and is being made into the platform. Even at a $20 license fee. As reported in March 2010, the Windows Mobile R&D team headcount back in FY 2009 was 2,000 staff with a total OPEX of $900 Million. The numbers could only have grown since then.
Partnering with a fast-declining Nokia buys Microsoft neither market share nor new revenue engines. First and foremost, Microsoft needs to establish significant market share for Windows Phone in North America — the hotbed of mobile innovation.
However, Nokia is traditionally weak in North America in both market share and brand awareness. Plus the European reception of Lumia was lukewarm with slight above one million devices sold during the Christmas launch season. Instead of placing so much faith in the partnership with Nokia, Microsoft could have focused their efforts on a close alliance with the faster-moving Samsung as the key OEM for the Windows Phone platform.
Microsoft will be challenged to find new growth engines. Up until now, Microsoft has been losing money in Internet and mobile. In the last quarter of 2011 alone, the company’s Online Services Division lost $458 Million adding to mounting multi-billion loses in the last six years (see this revealing Business Insider chart).
Throwing boat-loads of money at mobile and Internet without a winning business model can only work for limited time for Microsoft. Mounting costs will inevitably raise the concerns of impatient investors over the viability of its mobile strategy.
Nokia: a handset maker in the software age
Apple has outpaced Nokia not only because of better products, but because it changed the basis of competition. The competition has changed from a competition of devices to a competition of software ecosystems. Nokia understood the challenge back in 2007, but in a classic case of Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma, was late to respond.
Today, the mobile handset market is driven by owners of software ecosystems, companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft. The role of handset OEMs has been reduced to that of a foot solder in the broader battle between ecosystems. OEM business has become a commodity business, where OEMs have little room for differentiation, besides price.
Since Nokia was slow in fostering its own software ecosystem, the company had little choice but to join Motorola, Sony-Ericsson, Samsung, LG, ZTE, Huawei and a host of smaller OEMs in the fierce “competition to the best”. Michael Porter calls competition to the best “the granddaddy of all strategy mistakes”.
The partnership with Microsoft might not be able to save Nokia from the perils of commoditisation. Windows Phone is a very attractive product, but it arrived to the market two years late. Apple and Google had enough time to establish strong network effects for their iOS and Android platforms. These network effects between users and app developers ensure explosive growth, user lock-in and multi-billion dollar investments by developers (see our recent post on how platforms are not created equal). In these hyper competitive conditions, Windows Phone devices will be challenged to command premium prices – like it it not, Nokia will have to compete on price with Android devices.
In retrospect, Nokia associated itself with a fledgling software ecosystem that is yet to build strong network effects. With both profitability and volumes in question, Nokia finds itself in a one-way street, depending on Microsoft to help support its smartphone business (see how Microsoft paid $250 Million to Nokia in Q4 2011).
Given the new market conditions, Nokia’s real competition is not iPhone or Android, but Samsung. Samsung is not only the largest, but also the most profitable Android OEM. Its true competitive advantage lies in its vertical integration across the most expensive smartphone hardware components: the display, application and baseband processors and memory. Samsung even owns the fabs that manufacture many of these components. Samsung’s superior business model has launched the company to the second place of the industry in terms of profit share, second only to Apple.
Nokia’s business model of high-margin, branded OEM is in question and its dependency on Windows Phone alone is a weakness. Nokia would be much better off if the company manufactured both Android and Windows Phone devices. Nokia, with its economies of scale and strong brand name, could auction placement of either OS to the highest bidder on its devices.
Nokia is running out of time and Samsung is gaining market share eagerly. How soon will Microsoft need to knock on Samsung’s door offering to pay billions for promoting Windows Phone on millions of Samsung devices?
Insisting on sailing upwind
In this partnership, Nokia and Microsoft insist on sailing upwind with their sails flapping (those of you who’ve had any experience sailing will know how boring this can be). Combining two business models of the 1990’s won’t help the two companies regain their positions in the new world order, dominated by companies with Internet-age business models, like Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.
As it seems, the only way out for Nokia and Microsoft would be the acquisition of Nokia’s smartphone business by Microsoft, as Andreas Constantinou predicted a year ago on this blog.
[Michael Vakulenko is a Strategy Director at VisionMobile, where he focuses on mobile platform research and mobile ecosystem economics. Michael has been working in the mobile industry for over 16 years, starting his career in wireless in Qualcomm. Michael has a broad experience across many aspects of the mobile industry, including smartphone ecosystems, mobile services, handset software, wireless chipsets and network infrastructure. He can be reached at michael [/at/] visionmobile.com]