For more than a year now, Microsoft ( MSFT) has suffered some painful insults for a tech company. The world's largest software maker has been called an unwieldy, mature giant and -- gasp! -- the new IBM ( IBM). In a nutshell, it is said, Microsoft is a tech behemoth falling behind smaller, more nimble rivals in emerging markets. And Microsoft's stock, stuck under $30 for more than three years, has reflected that view. The shares have been so stagnant that they're starting to attract a value crowd. Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft is unlikely to offer much to change all that Thursday when it reports results for its fiscal first quarter, a typically slow period. But the earnings report may mark the end of Microsoft's dog days, because the company is about to kick off a year-long parade of new products. With two major launches leading that parade next month, Microsoft could start showing signs of a comeback as early as the December quarter. "You could get a major surprise in the
calendar fourth quarter," says Michael Holland, chairman of Holland & Co., a New York investment company, who declined to speculate on which products could drive the surprise. "Because they have so much going on simultaneously, the chances of them surprising to the upside expands exponentially," Holland says. Microsoft is one of his major holdings. The first new product on tap will be the latest edition of Microsoft's database software, called SQL Server 2005 and slated to launch Nov. 7. A far splashier debut will follow Nov. 22 with Xbox 360, Microsoft's next-generation video-game console. Those product unveilings are expected to help Microsoft's revenue return to growth in the double-digit percentages starting in the December quarter. Analysts are currently expecting Microsoft to earn 35 cents a share on $12.29 billion in sales in the December quarter, which would represent flat earnings from a year earlier on a 13.5% jump in sales.
By contrast, analysts are forecasting Thursday's first-quarter earnings to be 30 cents a share -- down a penny from a year ago -- on 6.4% year-over-year sales growth to $9.78 billion. Alan Loewenstein, a co-portfolio manager at American Fund Advisors, says he'll be listening Thursday for Microsoft to offer more detail on how many Xbox 360 consoles it expects to ship. The general expectation among investors and analysts is about 2 million-plus consoles during the holiday quarter. "The other question is, with higher gas prices and higher oil prices, are people going to jump and buy Xbox for Christmas or wait and see what Sony ( SNE) comes out with in the spring?" asks Loewenstein, referring to Sony's launch of PlayStation 3 expected this spring. Still, Loewenstein, whose firm holds Microsoft stock, is upbeat about the company's prospects. "We're positive on the company going forward because they have new products coming out, and they've been promising a lot over the last couple of years, and now you're looking out on the horizon toward them," he says. Pat Becker Jr. of Portland, Ore.-based Becker Capital Management says he'll be watching how much more Microsoft is spending on marketing for Xbox 360. Initially, Microsoft will lose money on the new game console, but Becker believes the Xbox business, including far more profitable video games, is the company's most likely division outside of Windows and Office to drive earnings higher. Currently, Windows and Office are so big that it's hard for any other division to have any notable effect on Microsoft's financials. Microsoft is slated to introduce new versions of those two flagship products by the end of next year. Bulls predict that the new Windows and Office products will create the company's biggest upgrade cycle in history and trigger substantial earnings growth.
Investors, of course, will be closely listening for any detail about the new products, called Windows Vista and Office 12, on Thursday. Becker argues that the acceleration of earnings growth from Vista and Office 12 will, in turn, drive up the stock price, which he currently sees as a bargain. "The stock from a valuation perspective is about as compelling as it's been in 15 years," Becker says. "We are a value manager. For the first time in our history we've been able to find Microsoft to be a value." Shares of Microsoft closed Wednesday up 8 cents to $25.11. At 19.2 times 2006 earnings, the stock is now trading at only a modest premium to the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500. And in the past two years, the stock has traded as low as 18 times earnings -- a floor not seen since 1990. But other investors and analysts are less enthusiastic because Vista and Office 2006 may not hit the shelves until the end of next year. Instead, they view 2006 as a year of investment by Microsoft, and 2007 as the more critical year for growth. Thursday's results are unlikely to shed more light on the debate over a potential run-up in Microsoft. But any word about the December quarter -- the first in which new products could help the company and its stock -- could start the company on its comeback trail.