Microsoft Needs More Than Nokia for Windows Phone to Succeed

It's looking increasingly as if Nokia might not get Microsoft where it wants to go in mobile.

Jan 25, 2014 at 8:00PM

Truly monumental changes are in the works at tech giants Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Nokia (NYSE:NOK). Or at least that's what we're led to believe. With Microsoft's massive $7.2 billion purchase of Nokia's handset business set to close in the coming months, Microsoft and Nokia are both supposed to be looking toward newer and brighter futures.

Both Microsoft and Nokia reported earnings this week. Sadly for this turnaround narrative, the results, especially from Nokia, paint a far bleaker picture than perhaps many realize. I know, I know -- I'm as surprised as you that Microsoft would throw good money after a bad acquisition. I guess there's a first time for everything, right?


Source: Microsoft.

However, the current struggles at Nokia highlight some very ugly truths for Microsoft going forward, as it vies to become relevant in the mobile market that's essentially passed Microsoft by.

Nokia's nightmarish numbers
Nokia's fourth-quarter earnings were truly dreadful. Perhaps most importantly, as far as Microsoft is concerned, is that things at Nokia's handset business appear to be going from bad to worse.

For starters, it's worth noting that Nokia began reporting its handset business as a discontinued operation now outside its core business. For the quarter, revenue from discontinued operations fell 29% from Q4 2012, and 4.5% from the third quarter of this year. Equally alarming, Nokia's handset shipments also came in well short of what had been expected, declining to 8.2 million shipments during the quarter versus 8.8 million in the third quarter.

For the quarter, Nokia's handset division saw its non-International Financial Reporting Standards operating margin decline 6 percentage points from the year before to -7.3%. Its handset business is bleeding money.

Put in proper context, it seems Nokia is getting a pretty sweet deal here, swapping what's by far its most challenged business for more than $7 billion of Microsoft's cash, while Microsoft is about to acquire a total mess of a business. That would be fine normally, as the tens of billions of dollars of cash Microsoft generates each quarter make botched acquisitions like this easy to weather.

However, Nokia's importance to Microsoft was arguably more strategic than financial. Microsoft had planned to use Nokia as the partner that helps drive what will be its glorious resurgence in the mobile space. But as we saw with Nokia's recent report, Microsoft's grand ambitions are likely crashing and burning in front of its very eyes.

Garbage in, garbage out
Since virtually all models involve a fair deal of assumptions, even the most sophisticated model can generate an outrageous outcome if it's based on unrealistic expectations. And in comparing Microsoft's ambitions for Nokia versus the current business realities at the Finnish smartphone maker, Microsoft's comeback plans are looking more and more like a pipe dream.

In the short term, the deal is almost assuredly going to be a money-loser for Microsoft. In its acquisition presentation, Microsoft estimated it would need to sell roughly 50 million Nokia smartphones to hit its operating income breakeven point. But in the full year Nokia reported on Thursday, it managed to sell only 30 million handsets. And especially with handset sales actually losing momentum in the fourth quarter -- traditionally the strongest quarter for smartphone sales -- it's hard to imagine how Microsoft will hit its breakeven point anytime in the near future. 

Msft Nok Acquisition Slide

Source: Microsoft.

However, it gets worse when looking at the long term.

By 2018, Microsoft is targeting a 15% share of the global smartphone market, which, at that point, will have growth to 1.7 billion units. This means Microsoft believes it will be able to grow its smartphone sales to roughly 255 million units, or about Apple's market share, even as Nokia's handset sales are declining in the present.

Msft Nok Acquisition Slide

Source: Microsoft.

In arriving at a final value for the deal, Microsoft estimates the Nokia handset deal will result in a net present value of between $15 billion and $30 billion. But again, this is predicated on Microsoft's achieving operating margins of 5% at the low end, and 10% at the high end. But again, remember, Nokia's handset business saw its operating margin decline meaningfully to 7.6% in its most recent quarter.

We're seeing a common thread emerge here -- that there's a gaping chasm between the current state of affairs at Nokia and what Microsoft believes it will be able to achieve with Nokia going forward.

A tall order indeed
Now, I'm all about being an optimistic, so forgive me for saying that this seems largely unachievable for Microsoft from where I'm sitting.

But it does.

Microsoft needed to make a bold move to demonstrate that it's serious about growing its presence in mobile. But from the look of things today, Microsoft will need to move far beyond just Nokia to achieve its desired 255 million shipments in five years' time.

In fact, it's been widely rumored that Microsoft has been in active discussions with other smartphone OEMs, such as Sony, Samsung, and many others, about possibly expanding their own portfolios of Windows-based smartphones in the year ahead.

However, as Microsoft prepares to bring Nokia's handset business under its corporate umbrella, it's looking more and more like a botched deal from the start. And that's something that should have Microsoft investors up in arms at the prospect of yet another botched billion-dollar buyout.

Apparently, history does repeat itself with Microsoft.

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Fool contributor Andrew Tonner owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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