A woman demonstrates the new Microsoft Corp. Acer Mixed Reality Headset during the #MicrosoftEDU event in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg)  

Microsoft’s Black Box Magic Works on Investors

(Bloomberg View) -- Microsoft Chief Executive Officer Satya Nadella isn't one for straightforward communications. On Thursday night, when analysts plied him with politely worded questions about the change in Microsoft's business model, they were treated to classic bits of cryptic wisdom such as this one:

To me, that's why Azure is pretty strategic for us, not just for the attachment of high-level services in what is defined as Azure, but the all-up digital transformation opportunity. That's how [Chief Financial Officer] Amy [Hood] and I even think about our margin structure. We need to improve in each one of the elements, but all-up we need to improve because we think that increased opportunity is what's unique about our approach.

And it's not just verbal. The company's financial reporting under him has become so opaque that it makes it hard to judge the ambitious transformation Nadella is leading. But maybe markets don't always need to know how the sausages are made when they like the output and the chef. In investing, like in politics and life, trust still plays a role.

Take the third-quarter results of financial year 2017, which the company reported after the bell on Thursday. Microsoft continues to aggregate its businesses into three segments -- "Productivity and Business Processes," "Intelligent Cloud" and "More Personal Computing" -- which don't quite follow any business logic. For example, all of the Windows business, including volume licensing to corporations, is included in "More Personal Computing" along with XBox gaming. One could argue that Windows is a product that reaches individual end users -- but then so does the Office software suite, which, in all its volume and personal, cloud and one-time license incarnations, is part of the Productivity and Business segment. The cloud business, Azure, the competitor of Amazon Web Services, is lumped together in the Intelligent Cloud segment with Microsoft's on-premises server business. 

Nadella explains that by saying the on-site servers represent "the edge of the cloud" for companies that build hybrid systems comprising both cloud-based and local computing. That, however, is not the same logic as Amazon uses, and it makes direct comparisons impossible. In the quarter that ended on March 31, the Intelligent Cloud segment showed revenue of $2.2 billion, compared with $3.66 billion for Amazon Web Services -- but it's hard to be sure what that means in terms of the companies' competitive positions. Microsoft could boost cloud revenue by adding in the successful Office 365 business or it could reduce it by disaggregating the server business, but it likes being a bit of a black box -- something Amazon, too, is often accused of for its reluctance to break out clearly delineated businesses.

Another big tech business that has had to reinvent itself in recent years, Sony, has ruthlessly shown declines in some of its specific businesses and publicly cut off dry branches, suffering the market consequences. Only now that the pruning is complete is CEO Kazuo Hirai getting rewarded with improved stock performance.

Microsoft hasn't taken this path. Its three misnamed segment baskets, introduced in financial 2016, exist for one purpose only: to continue showing segment profitability and growth. The previous system, only somewhat more clear-cut, showed declines in licensing revenues and, say, the company's disastrous mobile phone business. But after the financial gerrymandering, all the segments are of comparable size in terms of revenue, and all show a positive operating profit. Unprofitable LinkedIn, acquired last year and aggregated into Microsoft's financial reporting since the latest quarter, could have been dumped into any of the three baskets, but Microsoft chose to stick it into "Productivity and Business Processes," where operating income was higher, to better cushion the losses.

If Microsoft had broken out individual businesses in the reporting, one would be able to see how Windows revenue was changing as the company stopped selling individual licenses for new versions and moved toward putting the operating system in the cloud to compete with Google and its Chromebooks. One would see the relative dynamics of the on-site server business and Azure since, whatever Nadella says, these offerings compete with each other. One would be able to marvel at Office's successful transition to charging for software as a service.

As it is, Microsoft only offers glimpses of how the Nadella transition is going, and not the most informative ones at that. For example, it didn't have to report LinkedIn's numbers but did so. LinkedIn may go on losing money forever and Microsoft will still want it because it has lots of users and is complementary to its other products. Nor did it have to say that, in the latest quarter, sales of Surface hybrid devices had dropped because the flagship device, Surface 4 Pro, was reaching the end of its sales life cycle and competitors were offering similar products at lower prices. These are interesting bits of information, but they're not strategic. 

The existential questions lurk elsewhere. Can Windows escape the decline of the PC industry? So far, it has hung on by the skin of its teeth, but will Nadella's plan for moving it into the cloud make the situation less precarious? Can Azure compete successfully with Amazon and Google and do customers see Microsoft's server business as an extension of its cloud, the way Nadella does? Does Office really make more money long-term as a subscription service than as a box? In its quarterly regulatory filing, Microsoft says revenues from products it's transitioning to a subscription basis have been growing thanks to the transition. But there's no way to see how licensing revenue is being replaced with that from subscriptions.

Adobe Systems, the company that makes industry-standard image manipulation software, has proved that the kind of transition Nadella is working on is possible. In 2013, it decided to switch from one-time licenses to subscriptions and quickly achieved double-digit revenue growth. It had a far more focused business than Microsoft and no way to hide the effects of the shift -- but, happily, Adobe didn't need to do it; it could start boasting almost right away.

Microsoft is a bigger ship and a more important stock, and Nadella's way of dealing with it is to put up a kind of semi-transparent screen so that only shadows of what he's actually doing are visible

So far, markets have shown love and understanding. Since the beginning of 2014 (Nadella became chief executive officer in February of that year), Microsoft's market cap has risen by about two-thirds. Nadella has been able to show healthy overall numbers, and investors have trusted him on what's going on inside the baskets. That tells him not even to try to make himself any clearer -- hopefully, the numbers and the products will keep speaking for him.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.

For more columns from Bloomberg View, visit http://www.bloomberg.com/view.