Eyes on the Prize, Microsoft

Running Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) these days is a lot like playing Tapper. Surely you remember the old-school video arcade classic? In the game, you play a busy keg-tapper who must fill up pitchers of root beer to quench demanding patrons.

Eventually, the multitasking becomes too much, and you're forced to abandon returning pitchers to get smashed on the floor.

That's how I picture Microsoft these days. Since its juicy buyout bid for Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) last month, Microsoft has been serving up foamy sarsaparilla to its online arm. As Microsoft's sole money-losing division, some would argue that the company's wise to spend as much time as possible pouring out solutions for an MSN turnaround.

I don't disagree. I even offered up five companies -- and then five more -- that could help shore up the company's online positioning, assuming it's not able to nab Yahoo! at a fair price.

So what's my problem? Well, it seems as if all of this attention being paid to online services is forcing Microsoft to neglect its profitable businesses. That's dangerous.

A 360-degree turn
Let's take the Xbox 360, for instance. Market watcher NPD had some pretty distressing news for the next-generation platform. For the second month in a row, the Xbox 360 trailed both the PS3 and the Wii in console sales in February.

The Xbox ecosystem itself is holding up nicely, thanks to Microsoft's head start in rolling out its system a year earlier than Sony (NYSE: SNE  ) and Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK). Beyond the larger overall base and related software sales, Microsoft is also a master of digitally delivered transactions through its Xbox Live network.

However, Microsoft should be concerned that its system is now a bronze medalist in the hearts of new console buyers. The company had already warmed up to the silver after the Wii became the must-have machine last year. Now that Blu-ray has won its battle with HD-DVD to become the new optical disc of choice, the PS3 will become even more popular.

Keep in mind that HD-DVD's concession speech didn't take place until the latter half of February. The PS3 was already outselling the Xbox 360 since January. Microsoft blames the poor showing on a production shortage after a robust holiday selling season, and there have indeed been periodic outages. I just don't think that anyone expects the 360 to slip back into second place once it licks its output shortcomings.

Plan B takes two
You know what would help get the Xbox 360 back on the map? Something as simple as it buying Take-Two Interactive (Nasdaq: TTWO  ) might do the trick.

Right now, Microsoft is riding the wave between Halo releases. There are a few Xbox-exclusive titles, but the company really needs another juggernaut, like Take-Two's Grand Theft Auto or possibly even BioShock.

Microsoft already has a semi-exclusive relationship with Take-Two. It will pay the developer $50 million to produce a pair of episodic installments to next month's highly anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV, and last year's Take-Two hit BioShock was released exclusively for the 360 and Windows PCs.

It would cost a lot more than that to buy Take-Two whole -- something around $2.5 billion, after Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS  ) was rebuffed at $2 billion -- but that would give Microsoft not only the high-margin software revenue it thrives on, but also the right to turn off the spigot on Take-Two's future titles for non-Xbox platforms.

Would the move anger the other third-party publishers? They don't seem to mind that Nintendo makes most of its own top games. Microsoft would also be acquiring Take-Two at a forward multiple that's roughly one-third as rich as what Mr. Softy originally offered Yahoo!.

Microsoft's lucky break
Next month's quarterly report from Yahoo! should be a sobering eye-opener. If the online ad market weakens -- or if Yahoo! continues to lose market share to Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) -- the House of Gates will have the perfect excuse to walk away from its original offer for Yahoo!, instead of trying to force the deal into reality.

This should be a cold splash of water in Microsoft's face, awakening the company to the importance of conserving its greenbacks in an unsure economy. Whether it's paying $6 billion for aQuantive or tithing too much for the right to push ads on Facebook, Mr. Softy can afford to be a little more frugal in its purchases.

Our friendly root-beer tapper has been spending too much time -- and money -- serving a single line. There are other patrons getting thirsty, and Microsoft will have to move quickly to serve them all.


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