A few days ago, MSFT announced a $7.2 billion deal to buy Nokia’s cellphone business. That breaks out into $5 billion for the cellphone division + $2.2 billion to license Nokia’s relevant telecom patents.
Rather joining in the chorus of MSFT-bashing that’s accompanied the deal’s announcement, I want to make a single point. This deal has been a long time in the making–at least two years–even if MSFT may not have realized this.
In late 2010, Stephen Elop, a consultant/general manager with a tech background who had worked for almost three years at MSFT, became CEO of NOK. He promptly issued his “Burning Platform” memo, in which he likened working in NOK’s cellphone business to being stuck on an offshore oil platform that was being consumed by fire. Two choices: jump into the ocean or burn to death.
He followed that up in early 2011 by declaring that NOK was opting for the briny deep by abandoning its proprietary Symbian cellphone operating system in favor of Windows. Why not Android, which would have been the safer choice? Differentiation, Elop’s familiarity with MSFT, the potential for support from MSFT in the form of access to its smartphone intellectual property and possibly to its enormous pile of unused cash.
Sounds a little like Ron Johnson at J C Penney, doesn’t it? … drama, and a bet-the-farm moment.
The announcement that Symbian’s goose was cooked had the predictable result. People around the world stopped buying Symbian phones. Cash flow from cellphones turned from strongly positive to significantly negative. The situation didn’t improve when the first Windows-based Lumia phones debuted later that year.
By early 2012, it seems to me, the NOK board had to begin contingency planning. What if the Lumia phones were slow in taking off? How much of NOK’s cash flow from its other businesses would it be willing to plow into smartphones? How much financial support would MSFT kick in? When would continuing to prop up a failing Lumia line threaten to pull the parent company itself under?
We now know the answers.
NOK began to negotiate the sale of its smartphone business to MSFT in February, telling us that by that point NOK had determined it couldn’t continue its aggressive Windows phone bet without putting the entire company at risk.
Why did MSFT agree to buy the NOK cellphone business?
Without a Windows smartphone, MSFT’s grand vision of creating a Windows ecosystem like Android or Apple is DOA. Also, MSFT probably regards itself as playing with $.65 dollars. It gets to use a (small) portion of its foreign cash without repatriating it to the US and paying corporate income tax.
Anyway, NOK’s bungling the transition from flipphone to smartphone set a chain of events into motion that resulted in its willingness to sell. MSFT’s bungling of its decade-long mobile phone initiative made it an eager buyer. Whether the cobmination of the two will have a happier outcome is a completely different question.