Where's Microsoft Going?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- There's an uproar on the Street about Microsoft's (MSFT) "disappointing" fourth-quarter earnings results. But disappointing for whom?

I've heard the words "surprise" and "shocker" used to describe the company's miss on earnings per share and revenue. But was it really such a bombshell?

The last time we talked about the state of Microsoft, and in particular the company's management, I said the following:

Say what you want about the word "conviction" in the world of investing, but patience has its limits. Cheering on a company is all well and good. But if it's not matched by execution, there's a point when it's best to cut your losses and move on. With shares of Microsoft having already gained 25% on the year, now's the perfect time to move on to the next good idea. It's all downhill from here.

I said this while the stock was making new 52-week highs in what seemed like every other week. I was not impressed -- not as long as Microsoft was still being led by the current management team, which has shown an inability to find the hidden value this company still has. How it still deserves the benefit of the doubt remains a mystery.

While Microsoft's fourth-quarter earnings results do show the company still has some say in how corporate IT functions, there were still plenty of missed opportunities as the company tries to compete with Apple ( AAPL) and Google ( GOOG) in mobile devices. With management's poor track record of execution, I don't believe the recently announced "reorganization plan" will be enough to reward shareholders for their patience.

Before you disagree, let's dissect this recent performance.

I think we can agree that not much was expected from Microsoft going into this quarter. We know that a significant portion of the company's revenue and profits come from a declining PC industry. This means that two of Microsoft's dominant franchises -- namely Windows and Office -- are "endangered."

What this also means is the Street had lowered expectations ahead of the report, not just for Windows and Office, which are Microsoft's two main revenue generators. But expectations had come down for several other segments like Server & Tools, Online Services, Entertainment & Devices, etc.

Unfortunately, Microsoft missed its targets on every segment. This is not something investors see every day within the tech industry. Microsoft supporters insist on arguing the details of "by how much did the company miss," suggesting that relative to expectations, the results weren't that bad. But I would caution about this chronic choosing of the "glass-half-full" view. It's blurred.

For instance, the company posted revenue of $19.9 billion. While this was good enough for 6% year-over-year growth, it fell 4% short of estimates. The Windows division generated revenue of $4.41 billion for the quarter, which was good enough for 6% year-over-year growth. Yet, it fell short of estimates by more than 8%. Even the company's strong-performing Business division, which grew 15% year over year fell 3% short of estimates.

There are also arguments suggesting the company is in transition, which by virtue it deserves more time. Perhaps this may be true. But this excuse is premature. Besides, management has yet to fully disclose what the company's next direction will be under its "restructuring plan" nor do we know how these divisions are going to be impacted.

Plus, even if we had better information, investors aren't doing themselves any favors by continuing to give management the type of pass that they've enjoyed over the past decade. Profit-wise, things were pretty much the same -- there were some good, followed by several "yeah, buts..."

I'm willing to give management credit for improving cash flow and growing full-year profits, especially given the dire state of the PC industry. I was also pleased with the company's efforts to lower expenses. But that's as far as I am willing to go, seeing as GAAP gross margin declined by five points, which also missed estimates, as did operating margin.

I've made this point several times: Investors need to reconcile the strategic direction of this company in areas like mobile and cloud. Not only is the company being left behind by Google and Apple, but in areas like the fast-growing Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) industry, leaders like Oracle ( ORCL) and Salesforce.com ( CRM) are doing laps around Microsoft.

I just don't believe management has taken the sort of risks necessary to grow Microsoft beyond its core businesses. Essentially, management, and in particular CEO Steve Ballmer has not been able to effectively answer, what's next. As I warned two months ago while the stock was making new highs, it was time to take profits.

On Friday shares were hammered, down more than 11% at the close following the earnings miss. But we should have expected this.

I'm not suggesting Microsoft doesn't have value. After all, the company still rakes in plenty of cash each quarter. But until management is able to show it can use its cash to compete with Apple and Google, there will always be doubt. For now, there's no doubt that investors are angry. But don't be angry at Microsoft.

At the time of publication, the author held shares of AAPL.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

Richard Saintvilus is a private investor with an information technology and engineering background and the founder and producer of the investor Web site Saint's Sense. He has been investing and trading for over 15 years. He employs conservative strategies in assessing equities and appraising value while minimizing downside risk. His decisions are based in part on management, growth prospects, return on equity and price-to-earnings as well as macroeconomic factors. He is an investor who seeks opportunities whether on the long or short side and believes in changing positions as information changes.

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