Microsoft: Awake, Sleeping Giant!
The software maker is expected to report sluggish growth for the latest quarter but it may be ready to rumble.
By Amanda Cantrell, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Microsoft reports quarterly results Thursday and while it's expected to be a "transitional" quarter, industry analysts and some investors say the next 18 months will be crucial for the world's largest software maker.

That's because Microsoft (Research) isn't expected to see revenues from Windows Vista - the first new version of its ubiquitous operating system in five years - and its newest version of its Microsoft Office software until next year.

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Many analysts and investors are hoping these launches will be the catalyst that finally perks up Microsoft's stock, which has been stuck in a rut for more than three years.

The company's biggest announcement last quarter wasn't a hot new product but the news that the consumer version of Vista won't come out until early 2007. That means almost everyone's looking ahead.

Analysts are forecasting Microsoft earned 33 cents a share on sales of $11 billion for its fiscal third quarter that ended in March, according to a Thomson First Call survey of Wall Street analysts. That's compared to earnings of 32 cents a share on sales of $9.6 billion a year earlier.

Microsoft is also expected to unveil its first sales and earnings forecast for the fiscal year that starts in July -- which due to the new products will be a very important year for the folks in Redmond, Wash.

While the stock's been flat so far this year and is a far cry from its highs, some analysts are fond of it due to a strong balance sheet as well as the product pipeline. About 14 analysts rate it a "strong buy" and another 15 are at "buy," according to Thomson First Call. Only four have a hold rating, and one analyst rates it a strong sell.

Steady quarter = stagnant stock?

"It'll be another steady quarter for Microsoft," said Toan Tran, equity strategist for Morningstar. "We're not going to see much movement in their big businesses, which are Windows and Office."

Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund is forecasting sluggish sales growth for Windows and Office in the most recent quarter, but like other analysts sees growth picking up when the company releases its new products. Sherlund has an "outperform" or buy rating on the stock.

He estimates that Windows accounts for about 30 percent of Microsoft's sales and Office another 27 percent.

Beyond those core businesses, there are some bright spots. Morningstar's Tran said he expects software for servers to do well based on the strength of a key product called SQL Server 2005. Goldman Sachs' Sherlund sees server software sales growing a healthy 17 percent.

As for its "home entertainment" business, which includes the Xbox 360, analysts are hoping the increase in production announced in January will boost sales. Sherlund believes that the company shipped about 1.6 million Xboxes in the quarter, but noted the company still loses money on each Xbox despite strong sales growth.

Sherlund believes the Xbox business will turn a profit starting next July, when he reckons it should contribute 5 cents or so to earnings per share.

The company's Internet business, which houses the MSN brand and is an estimated 5 percent of revenue, is expected to struggle as Microsoft tries to catch the leaders in the space -- Google (Research) and Yahoo! (Research)

But is it a buy?

Peter Misek, senior technology analyst at Canaccord Adams, said he believes Windows Vista and Office 12 will be the catalysts that drives Microsoft's share price over the next 12 months. Misek currently rates the stock a buy, with a price target of $32.

But for growth managers, that may not happen soon enough.

"We're in a transition period for Microsoft," said Romeo Dator, co-manager of the All-American Equity Fund from U.S. Global Investors, adding that he thinks Vista and Office 12 won't drive bottom line or revenue growth until calendar 2008. Dator does not own shares of Microsoft but is keeping an eye on the stock.

"Not only businesses but consumers will be leery about adopting the first version of Vista available," he said. "They definitely want to know that it's bug-free and safe from hackers. We think adoption rate will be slower for Vista than their past operating systems."

Value managers have taken a shine to the stock of late, however. Morningstar's Tran called the stock's valuation "pretty cheap" – it currently trades at about 18 times 2007 earnings estimates.

"Microsoft is not the super-growth company that it was in the 1990s, but it's still growing at a good clip and generates a ton of cash, which is something value investors will look for," he said.

Morningstar's Tran does not own shares of Microsoft, and his firm does not do investment banking business. Goldman Sachs' Sherlund does not own shares of Microsoft, but his firm does investment banking business with the company.

Canaccord Adams' Misek does not own shares of Microsoft but his firm has banking ties to the company.

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Microsoft unveils new Internet Explorer version: Click here.

How I Work: Bill Gates. More here.

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.