R&D spending can lead to blockbuster returns. And Microsoft has a big advantage relative to its competitors in that it can invest enormous sums for future product development. But Microsoft, in being proud of the fact that it can spend almost $10 billion a year on R&D, is like a driller of oil and gas being proud of the fact that it can drill thousands of dry holes. It doesn't matter what you spend on R&D; it only matters what return you make from that investment for your investors. So far, Microsoft hasn't delivered on its promises.

A private-equity investor friend of mine once told me that he only liked investing in companies who practiced "small 'r' and large 'D' R&D" - meaning he wanted to see fewer ivory tower white coats and more of an emphasis on taking cutting-edge ideas and technologies out of the lab and building a real product and revenue stream around it. That process requires discipline, but it can be managed.

Microsoft isn't the first large company to face this challenge of effectively managing its R&D process. Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) lost its way a few years ago. Pfizer ( PFE) and other "big pharma" companies are facing similar questions around their R&D activities.

Instead of patting Microsoft on the back for its continued spending on R&D, investors and the press should be asking, "Where's the beef?" The onus should be on the company's management to articulate why its status quo approach for running this function will lead to different results in the next 10 years. Otherwise, I can think of several better ways to spend the next $62 billion of cash flow.
At the time of publication, Jackson's fund held a long position in Microsoft.

Eric Jackson is founder and president of Ironfire Capital and the general partner and investment manager of Ironfire Capital US Fund LP and Ironfire Capital International Fund, Ltd.

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