Chart of the day, Microsoft edition

Written by Reuters | Updated: Sep 5 2013, 14:41pm hrs
Many thanks to Ben Walsh for pulling together the data for this chart. The numbers speak for themselves, really: over the course of Steve Ballmers tenure as Microsoft CEO, the companys stock price has gone nowhere, its market share has plungedbut its headcount has more than trebled. And thats before adding another 32,000 employees as part of the Nokia acquisition.

Ben Thompson has a very smart analysis of Microsofts move here:

Guy English has already characterised Ballmers disastrous reorganisation as a straitjacket for the next CEO; adding on a mobile phone business that Microsoft probably should abandon is like attaching an anchor to said straitjacket and tossing the patient into the ocean. It will be that much more difficult for the next CEO to look at Windows Phone rationally.

As Henry Blodget notes, Windows Phone is now going to account for a good quarter of Microsofts employees; integrating those two huge and very different cultures is going to take an enormous amount of effort, with no guarantee of success. And as Thompson notes, this acquisition essentially forces Microsoft to double down on its strategy (which has signally failed to date) of competing head-to-head with Android and iOS.

There is really zero consumer demand for an alternative smartphone OS: even the ultrageeks fell well short of raising the $32 million they needed to develop a version of Ubuntu for phones. Microsoft is pretty good at giving big organisations what they wantWindows and Office, the two great powerhouses which have between them accounted for all of Microsofts profits over the years. And somewhere, deep inside its institutional memory, it knows that once upon a time it came late to the browser game, entered with a big splash, and ended up demolishing Netscape.

The problem is that this second-mover strategy doesnt work against Google and Apple. It doesnt work in search, it doesnt work in tablets, it doesnt work in phones. (It has arguably worked in gaming systems, which is something of a Pyrrhic victory, given the way in which games are going mobile.) Nokia is a failing companyif Microsoft hadnt swept in to save it, it would probably have gone bust pretty quicklyand one of the reasons that its failing is that no one wants to buy a Windows phone. And thats especially true in the fastest-growing market of all.

Nokias fall has been most spectacular in Asia, a region that its phones once dominated. As recently as 2010, the company had a 64% share of the smartphone market in China, according to Canalys, a research firm. By the first half of this year, that had plunged to 1%.

With this acquisition, Nokia chief Stephen Elop becomes the heir apparent to Ballmer. Elop knows how to navigate Microsofts poisonous bureaucracy, having worked there for many years, but he also counts as an outsider, able to bring in fresh ideas. He also obviouslyknows mobile, which is the single factor determining Microsofts future: if the company can navigate the move from the desktop to mobile, it will succeed; if it cant, it will fail.

But the chart foretells how this game is going to play out: Microsoft is now simply too big to turn around. Elop saved Nokia in much the same way as John Thain saved Merrill Lynch, by selling a fundamentally worthless company to a much larger strategic buyer for billions of dollars. That strategy isnt going to work for Microsoft. Probably, there is no strategy which would work out for Microsoft. The companys heyday is far in the past, now; all that the new CEO can hope for is to maximise profits as it slowly, inexorably, declines.

Felix Salmon