Will Microsoft and Nokia make for a ringing success?

Contact: Brenon Daly

In an acquisition that effectively formalizes a partnership of two and a half years, Microsoft plans to hand over $5bn for Nokia’s phone business. Additionally, it announced a $2.2bn agreement to license the Finnish company’s patents and mapping technology. Taken together, the moves mean that Microsoft – in its efforts to make the leap from the PC market to the much broader mobile world – has now tried all three of the corporate development strategies: buy, build and partner.

And yet so far, the results of that effort remain underwhelming. In an August survey by ChangeWave Research (a service of 451 Research) just 9% of corporate respondents indicated they planned to purchase a Windows Phone-powered device in the fourth quarter of this year. Microsoft’s ranking was dead last among the mobile OS providers. Even BlackBerry, which is fading dramatically, drew a level of support that was three times higher than Windows Phone.

Nor does the addition of Nokia, when the deal closes early next year, appear likely to bump up Microsoft’s standing among corporate mobile-device buyers. Just 7% of respondents to the ChangeWave survey indicated they planned to buy a Nokia device in Q4. That was the lowest standing among the six specific vendors included in the ChangeWave survey.

Obviously, Microsoft’s purchase and license agreements with Nokia extend far beyond the immediate timeframe covered in the ChangeWave survey. But even as we look ahead a year or more, we don’t necessarily see the transaction doing much to establish Microsoft as more than a distant fourth-placed mobile OS vendor.

For starters, there’s Microsoft’s mixed record on hardware, including its recent $900m write-off because it hasn’t sold anywhere near as many Surface tablets as it expected. And even when we look at precedent transactions where software companies have reached for hardware vendors (even those with solid underlying IP), the returns have been low. One dramatic example from the enterprise world: Oracle has struggled to get out from under the billions of dollars of hardware that it inherited when it acquired Sun Microsystems.

Even more relevant to the Microsoft-Nokia transaction, Google hasn’t radically altered the fortunes of Motorola’s smartphones since it acquired that business in a deal that was announced two years ago and closed May 2012. Yes, the Android OS continues to gain momentum for all device makers. But specifically for Motorola, the percentage of corporate buyers who plan to purchase a Motorola device in the coming quarter has dropped almost uninterruptedly in the year that Google has owned the device maker, according to ChangeWave research.