Like many other tech giants, Microsoft (MSFT) had a pretty good 2017. Its shares rose over 35% to new highs, and sales growth accelerated to a double-digit clip on the back of strong momentum for Office 365, the Azure cloud platform and newer server software offerings.
Here are some predictions for what 2018 might have in store:
1. Microsoft makes at least one big acquisition, and maybe more.
As of Sep. 30, $132.1 billion of Microsoft's $138.5 billion cash balance was parked outside the U.S.. A lot of that money will soon be coming stateside, thanks to a tax reform bill that calls for a one-time 15.5% tax on offshore cash holdings and allows for full repatriation of the rest. The bill also calls for a shift to a territorial tax system that will allow future offshore profits to be repatriated without much trouble.
Though Microsoft also has $84 billion in debt to account for, cash repatriation will give it a lot of flexibility to strike big deals. And as the $26.2 billion LinkedIn deal showed, Microsoft isn't scared to make them when it sees a big opportunity to expand its reach. Possible targets include a top enterprise SaaS (cloud app) provider such as Workday (WDAY) or ServiceNow (NOW) , as well as private technology firms with complementary products, such as Docker and DocuSign.
2. Large new buybacks are announced.
Even if a big acquisition is inked, chances are that cash repatriation, together with the knowledge that future offshore profits can be used on stock buybacks and dividends if wanted, will likely lead to big new capital returns.
Microsoft has already been buying back stock at a healthy pace: $11.8 billion was spent on repurchases in fiscal 2017 (it ended in June), and another $2.6 billion last quarter. That pace is likely to speed up in 2018. It also wouldn't be surprising if the quarterly dividend, which currently provides a 2% forward yield, is hiked.
3. Microsoft tries to leverage its Office pricing power.
Over the last few years, Microsoft has done a superb job of migrating much of its giant Office installed base to Office 365, as well as of keeping Alphabet/Google's (GOOGL) G Suite at bay by steadily expanding the feature sets of Office 365 plans. More advanced corporate plans contain not only the traditional Office apps, but also product such as Skype for Business (unified communications), Yammer (enterprise social networking), Teams (chat/collaboration) and Power BI (analytics), not to mention unlimited OneDrive storage. And in September, Microsoft began integrating LinkedIn's user data with Office 365 apps.
Look for Microsoft to start leveraging Office 365's enterprise dominance to grow its average revenue per user (ARPU) for its Office cash cow. One possibility: Microsoft keeps prices low for its cheapest Office 365 business plans to keep cost-sensitive buyers from considering Google, but hikes prices for more feature-rich plans and/or makes new value-added features exclusive to those plans.
4. HoloLens becomes more business-focused.
Though it begin shipping in March 2016, the HoloLens augmented reality (AR) headset is still only available through a $3,000 developer kit. What's more, a February report indicated that the next version of HoloLens won't arrive until 2019.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg has reported Apple (AAPL) could launch an AR headset that could pair with iPhones by 2020; Google is selling an enterprise-focused version of Google Glass and is expected by many to take another stab at a consumer headset; and -- though it has to be connected to an external "Lightpack" and clearly needs more work -- startup Magic Leap has shown off an AR headset it promises to ship in 2018.
HoloLens faces two big challenges in the consumer market: It can't be worn outdoors, and -- unlike Apple and Google -- Microsoft doesn't control a popular mobile OS it can pair the headset with. On the other hand, developers have been coming up with some pretty compelling business and education use cases, such as virtual workstations, computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D model analysis. Look for Microsoft to focus its efforts to commercialize HoloLens on such use cases.
5. Microsoft's latest database proves a hit.
Microsoft's just-launched SQL Server 2017 database is the first version of SQL Server to run on Linux servers, rather than just on Microsoft's Windows Server OS. It also comes with a number of advanced analytics and machine learning features, including support for scripts based on the R and Python programming languages (used by data scientists) and the ability to handle machine learning algorithms (run against SQL Server data) via Nvidia (NVDA) Tesla server GPUs hosted within a database server.
SQL Server has been steadily taking database share in recent years. Its newest features should accelerate the pace of those share gains.
This column originally appeared on Dec. 21 on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get more great columns like this.
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