With declining revenues and robust competition in many of its product areas, 2009 was not exactly a banner year in Microsoft's history. Will 2010 be any better? Redmond can certainly look toward a few bright spots: Both Windows 7 and Bing, its search engine, experienced disaster-free launches followed by solid early adoption rates, which could translate into greater success in the coming year.
However, Microsoft also faces substantial challenges. Despite a search-and-advertising partnership deal with Yahoo that could see Bing's market share nearly triple, Google remains the dominant force in online search. Microsoft's mobile division remains weak and is faced with substantial competition from the likes of Apple and RIM. And if the economy doesn't pick up, then there'll be no rising PC sales to buoy sales of Microsoft software.
So how will 2010 fare? The following traces out Microsoft's prospects in certain key areas.
Microsoft-Yahoo Deal Goes into Effect, Presenting Bigger Google Challenge
Microsoft poured millions of marketing and development dollars into Bing, its search engine that launched in June 2009, but the biggest increase to its market share in 2010 will likely come courtesy of the search-and-advertising agreement struck between Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz.
On July 29, Microsoft and Yahoo jointly announced a 10-year partnership that would see Bing powering search on Yahoo's sites, while Yahoo assumed exclusive worldwide sales duties for both companies' search advertisers. The deal is expected by both parties to be cleared by antitrust regulators and should go into effect in 2010.
When that happens, assuming that Yahoo's market share ports over to Bing's with a minimum of attrition, Microsoft's share of the U.S. search-engine market could rise to close to 30 percent. Google continues to occupy roughly 70 percent of that market, so even a more robust Bing won't present a survival threat. Nonetheless, 2010 will likely be the year where the world of online search narrows down to two engines whaling at each other for market share. Yahoo, meanwhile, seems intent on giving up the search game entirely for becoming a Web applications provider.
Bing and Google will also likely continue their grudge match over features. In November and December, Microsoft rolled out several new Bing features, including a beta version of Bing Maps that made it a more robust competitor to Google's Street View. Additionally, Bing now features a more robust video-search page and results from Wolfram Alpha. In 2010, expect both companies to go through several new rounds of competing feature tweaks and add-ons.
Microsoft will also spend 2010 trying to push Bing into foreign markets, notably China; but with Google's robust presence overseas, and the Yahoo deal restricted to the United States, Bing could have some trouble increasing its market share in those areas.
A Possible Revenue Rebound, Powered by Windows 7
The economic recession battered Microsoft. For the fourth quarter of fiscal 2009, the company reported a 17 percent decline in year-over-year revenue, with earnings arriving at $1 billion below Wall Street estimates. Results for the next quarter offered a somewhat shallower decline of 14 percent year-over-year, with operating income, net income and diluted earnings all continuing to fall by double-digit numbers.
Both Microsoft and its OEMs hope that companies with Windows-based IT infrastructure will use Windows 7 as an excuse to upgrade their systems, and buy the next generation of Microsoft products, in 2010. In both interviews with eWEEK and larger conference calls with investors and media, company executives have suggested that any uptick in sales of Windows 7 and associated products will be roughly in line with any rise in PC purchases through 2010 and beyond, irrevocably linking Microsoft's fortunes to those of the wider tech industry.
A number of analysts seem to think a tech-refresh scenario is possible.
"It looks like the Win7 inspired upgrade cycle can start in late 2010 and run through early 2013," Katherine Egbert, an analyst with Jefferies & Co., wrote in an Oct. 12 report. "We expect new hardware purchases to precede the software upgrades by about 6 months."
But the economy could certainly hit the skids again, in which case a tech refresh would be necessarily blunted as companies battened down their budgetary hatches. In any case, Microsoft executives seem intent on curbing expectations: in an Oct. 23 earnings call, Microsoft Chief Financial Office Chris Liddell suggested that the company would remain "reasonably cautious" about the prospect of a tech refresh, echoing comments earlier in the year from Steve Ballmer.