Why Microsoft matters
Investors look for signs of accelerated growth from the tech industry's bellwether
By Adam Lashinsky, FORTUNE senior writer

SAN FRANCISCO (FORTUNE) - For all it has been through as a company and a stock, Microsoft remains the prism through which an entire industry -- heck, several entire industries -- can view how things are going. That's what makes Mr. Softee's earnings release on Thursday evening so important.

Some wags will pooh-pooh the importance of whatever Microsoft (unchanged at $26.40, Research) has to say. At around $26, its stock is within a buck or two of where it's been for an entire year. Contrast that with shares of almighty Google (Research). The spread between its high and low share price in the first 13 trading days of 2006 is an astounding $81.

So Microsoft doesn't matter, right? Wrong. At $280 billion in market capitalization, the beast from Redmond can't be ignored. The PC industry still shovels about 75 million hunks of plastic into homes and business each year. Almost every computer has the monopolist's Windows software on it. So it remains the marker everyone watches.

Intel's sorry performance last week could be explained away in part by AMD's strength. AMD, long the sick man of the microprocessor world, has dramatically gained on Intel in terms of price and performance. Microsoft, in turn, faces tectonic challenges from Google, both directly in the head-to-heard competition in their online advertising businesses and indirectly by Google's implied threat of giving away the very software that feeds Microsoft's profits. Only Microsoft, however, can comment all by itself on the health of information technology and have every company from Dell and HP to IBM and Oracle care.

So how is Microsoft going to do? Heather Bellini, an analyst with UBS, has an interestingly bullish argument on Microsoft's quarter and its stock. She recently lowered her estimate for Microsoft's fourth-quarter shipments of its hugely popular Xbox 360 gaming console. That's a good thing, in Bellini's eyes, because Microsoft is losing anywhere from $125 to $140 for every box it sells. Fewer shipments equal smaller losses. On the flipside, Bellini thinks people are missing the importance of increased shipments of Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition software. This is the package that makes a PC into a combo TV/DVR/computer. Microsoft has been at this for several years now but finally is gaining traction. Opines Bellini: "While most investors view Apple as the likely candidate to dominate the consumer digital hub opportunity, we believe Microsoft is already out in front with the launch of this product." Her price target is $34. That'd be a 31% gain on a stock that has done nothing forever.

Microsoft still matters. Bellini notes that it is one of the few companies she follows that will experience accelerating sales and earnings growth this year. Of course that's because recent growth has been so slow for Microsoft. But investors aren't concerned with the past. It's the future that matters. The technology industry, believe it or not, would like nothing better than a future that includes a growing Microsoft again. What with the kind of start to the year the tech world has had, including disappointments of one form or another from Apple, Intel and Motorola, a positive day for Microsoft would be welcome, to say the least. Top of page

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