'Naked PCs' lay bare Microsoft's emerging markets problem

It is one of the biggest US companies to fall under the eye of Chinese regulators as they ramp up their oversight in an apparent attempt to protect local companies and customers.

On a trip to Beijing a decade ago, Bill Gates was asked by a senior government official how much money Microsoft Corp made in China. The official asked the interpreter to double check Gates' reply as he couldn't believe the figure was so low.

It's a problem that hasn't gone away. Indeed, Microsoft's current issues in China conceal a deeper problem for the US software giant - despite the popularity of its Windows operating system and Office suite, few people in emerging markets are willing to pay for legitimate copies.

This not only costs Microsoft in lost revenue, but is also holding back the spread of its newest Windows 8 version - analysts say even buyers of pirate software prefer older versions. According to StatCounter, a website that tracks what software is loaded on Internet-connected computers, more than 90 per cent of PCs in China - now the world's biggest market - are running pre-8 versions of Windows.

Microsoft is trying to tackle this. This year it's offering Windows 8 at a discount to PC manufacturers who install its Bing search engine as the default. And it's giving away versions of Windows 8 for phones and some tablets.

But, as the industry shifts from desktop to mobile, the cloud and free or cheap software, China sums up both the old and new challenges Microsoft faces in making money in emerging markets - and, increasingly, in developed ones.

"The great danger for the company is that what has happened to them in emerging markets - basically no revenue from new PCs because of piracy - is not far off what's happening everywhere," said Ben Thompson, the Taiwan-based author of stratechery.com, a popular technology blog.

CORE COST

For sure, China is a major, and unique, headache for Microsoft. Many of the problems are tied to a broader push by the Chinese government to limit foreign firms' dominance and encourage local technology firms to become viable competitors.

After years of healthy relations with Beijing, Microsoft last month was suddenly targeted by anti-monopoly regulators who raided its China offices as part of a price-fixing investigation.

But the spats mask the fact that Microsoft has never really cracked how to get people in emerging markets to pay for its software. The company rarely breaks out revenues by geography, but it has provided clues about the size of the problem.

In 2011, then CEO Steve Ballmer reportedly told employees that, because of piracy, Microsoft earned less revenue in China than in the Netherlands - with 1 per cent of its population - even though China bought as many computers as the United States.

According to the BSA anti-piracy lobby group that Microsoft co-founded, emerging markets account for 56 per cent of all PCs in use, and 73 per cent of software piracy. Of the US$77.8 billion (S$97.36) revenue Microsoft generated in its 2013 financial year, China, Brazil and Russia each "exceeded" US$1 billion, according to a Microsoft presentation. For comparison, Apple Inc generated US$27 billion in Greater China, which includes Hong Kong and Taiwan, in its 2013 financial year.

For Microsoft, that's a lot of lost revenue from the heart of its business. "Windows and Office are still very much the core of Microsoft," says Sameer Singh, an India-based analyst.

The most recent breakdown by Microsoft of its results by product line - for the first quarter of fiscal 2014 - shows that 56 per cent of its global revenue and 78 per cent of operating profit came from Windows and Office.

Microsoft doesn't just lose the revenue from pirate copies, it also loses access to customers who might buy other Microsoft products that work with or on top of Windows and Office.

Across most markets, Windows and Office account for more than half of revenues, says Andrew Pickup, Microsoft's Asia PR chief. This, analysts say, is because many of Microsoft's other products, such as Exchange and Windows servers, depend on customers already using Windows and Office.

"The Microsoft ecosystem is obviously pretty interconnected," says Jan Dawson of US-based Jackdaw Research. "So it makes sense that the proportion of revenue would be similar in emerging markets."

No comments yet.
Be the first to post comment.