OK, so I got the price wrong.
In a surprise Labor Day announcement, Microsoft is acquiring Nokia’s devices and services business.
I already said most of what I think about this pairing two and a half years ago. If you get past that melodramatic headline, most of it still holds. But I liked it a lot more when the year was 2011 and the price was (even if rhetorically) free. What’s happened since then to justify going all-in now? Now all I have is a pile of questions:
1) Why was this announcement made after throwing Ballmer out? That news came a mere ten days ago. Combine this Nokia news with the big reorg, and you have a much more lucid claim that things are changing in a big way. If Ballmer were to announce his retirement this week, it’s a lot easier to credibly claim Microsoft is taking a new direction and that it’s time for new leadership.
2) Knowing that Ballmer is a lame duck, is this his deal, or the board’s? If it’s his deal, that straitjacket just became an iron box. If it’s the board’s deal, why is his name on the announcement? (“He’s not gone yet” is not a good answer. He’s gone.)
3) A lot of problems at Microsoft, from a poisonous adversarial culture to a lack of vision, have been illuminated in the last few weeks. Who honestly thinks this merger will solve any of them? (Bad acquisitions, by the way, are a piece of Ballmer’s legacy that has been, in my opinion, underreported since the news of his retirement broke.)
4) The Elop-as-next-Microsoft-CEO buzz has already begun. Why? How’s he done at Nokia? The only “rational” reason to have him succeed Ballmer is that he seems like an appropriate successor to Ballmer in every way — in other words, he absolutely should not get the job. Kara Swisher loves the vapor-video he apparently commissioned. I prefer Bret Victor’s take on these sort of things. Note Victor’s repeated, damning use of the v-word.
5) Nokia was already making very nice Windows Phone hardware. And the Windows Phone software, while not making a huge market share dent, has been routinely praised. What, then, has been the problem — and again, is this merger really the solution? This is easy to answer with another question: How would the Lumia line be selling if it ran Android, and without Nokia as a Google subsidiary?
6) Microsoft just disclosed it only makes $10 per Nokia phone sold. Gross margins per unit are estimated at $40. When, if ever, will this deal pay for itself? What does today’s news have to do with increasing either unit sales or device margins?
One thing must be observed: all the major mobile players — Apple, Google, Microsoft, and oh what the hell, BlackBerry — now own a top-to-bottom technology stack. Alan Kay was right as ever when he said “People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.”
But Microsoft needs to be thinking big and ahead, and removing burdens. I just don’t think its inherent ills can be cured, or even disturbed, by this deal. Assuming nothing fundamentally changes at the top, I believe it will be a complication that only accelerates the fall of a giant.