Did Microsoft Experience a Lost Decade?

Over the past decade, Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) share price has stagnated, while Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) shares are up approximately 20-fold. In the quarter ending in March 2012, we learned that sales of Apple's iPhone now exceed all of Microsoft's sales. It seems clear that Microsoft has been surpassed by Apple on multiple fronts over the past 10 years.

In "Microsoft's Lost Decade" -- a widely read piece that appears in the July issue of Vanity Fair -- Kurt Eichenwald shows how Microsoft has become technology's version of Sears over the past 10 years. Since 2000, Microsoft has performed poorly in a variety of areas, including music, search, and social networking. The formerly revolutionary company, according to Eichenwald, has "become the thing they despised."

E-readers will never amount to anything                     
Eichenwald's case for a lost decade is very compelling. While Apple, Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) , and Facebook (Nasdaq: FB  ) were introducing dramatic innovations, Microsoft was concentrating on "Old Faithfuls" like Windows, Office, and servers. Since 2000, Eichenwald notes that Microsoft's market cap declined from $510 billion to $249 billion (as of June 2012).

Eichenwald believes that Microsoft's concentration on Office, for example, made it unable to introduce new products like e-readers, despite the fact that it was an early pioneer in this area. Ultimately, it was Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) and Apple that benefited tremendously from this innovative new product. And debacles like the Zune and Bing only reinforced the notion that Microsoft was losing its edge when it came to technology. Eichenwald even quotes a senior member of Microsoft's leadership team who wondered in 2004 why Apple's technology was "so much better than Microsoft's."

Ballmer strikes back
Not surprisingly, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer firmly rejects the notion that his company experienced a lost decade. In a recent interview with Forbes, he said, "It's not been a lost decade for me!" He notes that there are now 1.3 billion people using PCs today, and that there will be 375 million of them sold just this year. He adds, "So, is it a lost decade?"

Ballmer also wonders whether the stock market might not be the best barometer of how well a company is doing. And he thinks the company is creating excellent products like Surface, Windows 8, and Office 15, and that those products will ultimately result in rewards for shareholders.

The demise of a company culture
So who is correct on the matter of the lost decade? Ballmer's defense is somewhat compelling. It's true that the stock market may not always recognize the true value of a company, particularly a tech giant like Microsoft. And there are many customers out there who praise the technology behind the Xbox and Windows Phone 7. Finally, Microsoft is the fifth largest company in the world by market cap. Clearly, it still has the ability to generate considerable profits for its shareholders.

Eichenwald's criticisms should not be ignored, however, even if the notion of a lost decade is perhaps overstating the problem. Microsoft certainly missed a huge opportunity in smart devices, and it clearly saw Apple surpass it as a leader in developing new products.

Eichenwald offers a persuasive explanation as to why Microsoft fell behind more innovative companies over the past decade. Based on dozens of interviews with current and former executives, he identified "stack ranking" as the most destructive process within the company.

Stack ranking is defined as a process where "every unit is forced to declare a certain percentage of employees as top performers, then average, then below average, then poor." According to many of the executive interviews, this process led employees to compete fiercely with each other versus external competitors on whom they should have been focused. One executive believes that stack ranking explains why Apple's technology surpassed Microsoft's.

Time for new leadership
Regardless of how we characterize Microsoft's most recent decade, it seems to me that the company developed a flawed culture that may constrain its ability to compete with its more innovative rivals in the future. Eichenwald concludes his piece with a quote from Steve Jobs, who said before his death, "I don't think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it."

The big takeaway from Eichenwald's piece is that somehow Microsoft's culture went off the rails over the past 10 years. It seems to me that new leadership will be required to get the company back on track.

While Microsoft was having a disappointing decade, Apple was experiencing one of the most amazing decades in American business history. That may sound like hyperbole, but Apple's extraordinary performance backs up that statement.

If you would like to better understand Apple and its future prospects, be sure to check out our new premium report on the company. Our senior tech analyst takes a deep dive on the company and uncovers some invaluable insights for investors.

John Reeves owns shares of Apple and Google. You can follow him on Twitter, @TenBaggers. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Amazon.com, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Amazon.com, Apple, Microsoft, and Google and creating bull call spread positions in Apple and Microsoft. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On July 17, 2012, at 5:10 AM, 1brayden wrote:

    As the 5th largest company by market cap and with a 1.3 billion PC base, Microsoft is going to be a contender.

    However, I would tend to agree that the company did squander "the lost decade" by not innovating enough. How they fare playing catch up will be both interesting and tell tale. Their role in the future will be determined over the next 12 months.

  • Report this Comment On July 18, 2012, at 4:57 PM, WASCALLY wrote:

    I couldn't agree more. A culture you described with the name of "Stack Ranking" has the similar result that the state of our national security before 9/11. There was competition and turf war instead of cooperation and shared info which resulted in the tragedy of that day. I believe the "Culture" starts at the top. Ballmer has been there too long. How would you like to be the CEO who led the "Lost Decade" of Microsoft?

  • Report this Comment On July 18, 2012, at 5:10 PM, TMFBane wrote:

    Thanks for your comments!

    @WASCALLY, that's an interesting point about stack ranking.

    I get why Microsoft thought it might be a good approach. Some leaders believe that identifying the top talent is crucial, since those are the folks that can deliver a disproportionate amount of value for the firm (or so the theory holds). The problem, however, is that it appears that this was applied in a somewhat Darwinian way at Microsoft. Marc Andreessen recently made the point that innovation is the number one output of a technology firm. Anything that impedes collaboration in delivering that output -- like stack ranking in the case of Microsoft -- can be really harmful.

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