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Competitive Advantage is at the intersection of Market Need and the Company’s Unique Ability Supply It.

Focus is crucial In order for a company to build a competitive advantage (the same might be said for a person). A company must first recognize the potential advantage, and focus in order to capitalize on it. A competitive advantage is at the intersection of the most urgent market need and the unique ability of the company to uniquely supply that need. Efforts are focused on developing that ability, and ignoring other less rewarding aspects of the company.

Adapting to focus on meeting the current market needs therefore builds the company’s competitive advantage. But the market does not remain static. In order to continue dominating markets that change, the company will need to develop new strengths. The source of strength at one stage can be used to build new sources of strength. Hence, the company must adapt again. Over time, evolution occurs and the degree and nature of change can be striking.

The story of the early Microsoft is a good example of this. In 1975, Bill Gates and Paul Allen had a competitive advantage in that had high IQ’s and had worked extremely hard to develop their programming skills, devoting most of their time to that end since the age of 13. At that time, the most practical computers available were termed minicomputers. These were smaller, more physically more practical than the mainframes which had hitherto dominated computing. Minicomputers were pioneered by companies like Digital Equipment Corporation. The programmer communicated with using a keyboard, generally remotely. Different users would book on the remotely located minicomputer. Bill and Allen had spent essentially all their otherwise unoccupied time learning use mini-computers since high school and had faced a constant battle to find time on a shared minicomputer. They realized that computing power would be valuable if it was available on computers conveniently located at the user’s location, whether home or office. Processors were becoming cheaper, smaller and more powerful, so in theory it seemed computers would follow to make this vision possible, although the established computer hardware companies were sticking to more developed markets. So they were aware of a possible new market opportunity which would match their strengths.

In 1975, Ed Roberts in Albuquerque NM had a company called Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), selling electronic equipment. In 1969 he moved it out of his garage and focused on selling kits to build calculators. He was wiped out by Texas Instruments’ and others’ entry into the market in early 1970s. Roberts shifted to using the new micro-processors, introduced in 1971 by Intel, to create computers that were small and cheap enough to be used by a single hobbyist. This new chips enabled the entire CPU to be contained on the single small chip. Roberts sold a kit to make a portable computer using the 1974 8080 Intel chip. The computer was called the Altair, the term “personal computer “, was coined by Roberts.

It was the Altair that appeared on the cover of Popular Electronics Magazine in January 1975. Paul Allen spotted it at the newspaper kiosk in Harvard Square while visiting Bill. They realized this was an opportunity to apply their programming abilities with a future market.

Their first task in seizing this opportunity was to promise Ed Roberts they would create a version of basic that would run on the 8080 chip and be able to run calculations. Roberts did not take them seriously. Many enthusiasts had phoned him and made similar claims, hoping to score a contract. He told them all that whoever produced a working product first would get the deal.

The young men did what was required to overcome the obstacles involved. No one had ever written a version of BASIC for a personal computer like this one, since this was indeed the first one. They did so, with the help of fellow student Monte Davidoff. The young men did not even have an Altair to program on. Allen located a manual for the 8080 chip, and created basically an emulator on the PDP-10 microcomputer they used at Harvard. He saw this could be done because of previous work he had done with Gates in high school. Gates wrote the required version of BASIC that would run on the 256bytes of memory it contained. Davidoff wrote the portion that worked with mathematical calculations. Allen flew to Albuquerque at the end of Feb 1975 to show (to everyone’s amazement) that they had written software that could perform on the Altair.

The next step was follow through to turn this creation into a product that would sell. They wrote versions of BASIC that used more memory, and debugged. This required continuous work. Allen joined MITS as software director. Allen’s work colleagues at Honeywell, where he wrote “assembly code for a niche market machine” made clear they thought he was embarking on a foolish distraction, and assured him his job would be waiting for him when he regained his senses. Gates moved at the end of his sophomore year and eventually dropped out of College. They brought Davidoff and an old colleague Chris Larson.

Thus, the partners’ strength in terms of programming skill and agility, and extreme commitment to the task, combined with their focus on the one opportunity to feed a new market which they and apparently no one else were willing to pursue, gave them the start of a competitive advantage.

Demand for the relatively new personal computers was red hot on the part of hobbyists and amateurs. While no established computer related companies initially planned to create PCs using the new microchips, demand for the Altair was huge and MITS quickly became profitable. Micro-Soft, as it was initially called, was clearly supplying an urgent market need by writing versions of BASIC, the most practical and widely used programming language for everyday computer applications, for the Altair in its various models as well as other personal computers as they appeared.

What did Allen and Gates focus on in their new company? Software had hitherto been written by hardware companies for use in their computers. Now, Allen and Gates were writing BASIC and selling it to be used on computers made by someone else. Allen and Gates signed a contract with MITS whereby MITS would pay them per copy royalties for BASIC. In addition, 50% of software sold without hardware, and of software sold to other hardware makers (OEMs). The concept of selling software for people to use in this way was novel, many users copied the Altair BASIC without paying and revenues were initially poor. Gates, the more ebullient of the two, worked to establish the precedent of expecting to get paid for the hard work of writing software partly by writing hard hitting editorials in new magazines devoted to the novel computers. The custom of buying software took hold, without which the Micro-Soft business plan would not be viable.

Within a year of the emergence of Altair, MITS began to be superseded in the market by other companies building superior hardware, and soon new personal computers were being introduced each month. Eventually established companies such as GE and NCR came in. Micro-Soft (Paul Allen came up with this name) wrote versions of BASIC for each new OEM. Their strategy was to sell it cheaply enough to discourage OEMs from developing their own software. Micro-Soft became the software developer for the PC industry, and they continued making sure to provide BASIC for every new microcomputer on the market. In 1977 they added Fortran, a language used in scientific research and engineering, and then others such as COBOL.

In October 1976, Micro-Soft was registered as Microsoft Inc. in New Mexico, and moved into modest offices on Central Avenue, a humdrum low rent commercial neighborhood. Here is a plaque at the sight of the original Microsoft office. The building they originally occupied has since been replaced.

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In 1977, prominent brand name companies entered the personal computer market. The TRS-80, Commodore PET and Apple II arrived. These were altogether more usable, with keyboards, monitors and graphics. MITS did not grow and adapt quickly enough to compete with these larger corporations. Microsoft parted ways with MITS after enduring an arbitration process, and proceeded to establish the standard software tools for PC’s. Microsoft provided BASIC for RadioShack’s TRS-80, the most popular PC that year. Apple could not produce an acceptable BASIC tool and licensed a 12Kbyte version from Microsoft. Computers became steadily cheaper and more powerful.

One weakness with this business plan, was that significant work was required to produce a software language for a specific new PC. The development of CP/M, an operating system developed by Gary Kildall of Digital Research, meant that if hardware providers could make their machines support the OS, then software tool providers could write for the OS instead of having to reengineer a programming language version for every single new processor or machine.

In time, 1980 to be precise, the then king of computer companies, IBM, would ask little Microsoft, as the provider of the most widely used programming language tools (while IBM had a version of BASIC, they knew Microsoft’s version was more popular with programmers), to provide programming languages for the new IBM PC they were secretly planning. Oh, and Microsoft was expected to provide an operating system as well to go along with the package. But that is part of another chapter, which occurred after the company had moved from desert Albuquerque to the Pacific Northwest, home for the founders.

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Microsoft: leveraging and extending its competitive advantage into the future

My approach to investing in individual companies starts with identifying the rare companies with a sustainable competitive advantage.  While the existence of a durable competitive advantage is manifested in quantifiable features of the financial statement, the ultimate judgment of whether the current competitive advantage will last for the foreseeable future is qualitative, relying on an understanding of the nature, competitive environment and history of the business.

To adapt to an ever changing future, vigilant companies make trial investments in new related markets. The longest lasting companies are those who finally invest only in those areas in which they can maintain a competitive advantage, and hence continue to earn better than average returns on investment for the foreseeable future.   Many companies watch their once impregnable advantage decline as events shape history’s final judgment.  For example, Kodak was dominant in photographic film and in the 1970s had a 90% market share.  It then participated in the invention of digital photography and had the opportunity to integrate its own digital photo technology into PCs in the 1980s.  But Kodak did not pro-actively build a new basis for market dominance in the new markets.  Competitors caught up and passed, Kodak faded and finally filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in 2012. It turns out that rare companies do the work to create bridges to future franchises, using their current market dominance to shape and outcompete in new markets.  Microsoft (MSFT) is such a company.

For the past 10 or 12 years, Microsoft has frankly been unloved by the fashionable tech media, and increasingly by the professional investing crowd.  Under this surface air of decayed greatness is an irrepressible, tenacious organism that adapts by thrusting into new territories, taking root only in areas in which it may extend its competitive advantage, and then proceeding to compete as if its life depended on it.

Recently, MSFT has put in motion a few approaches to increase its competitiveness, and these are now beginning to bear fruit.  These include low balling the price of its Windows OS;  developing its applications for cross platform markets;  partnering with 3rd party software/platform providers that may be competitors; and transitioning its market dominance to the cloud.

MSFT has used these strategies before. For example, in the early 1980’s Multiplan, the predecessor of Excel, was coded for a software emulator that would be interpreted for different OEM PCs. Thus it was sold to more than a hundred different OEMs selling to businesses, in an ultimately successful end run around Visicalc, which had locked up the retail market.  When MS-DOS was released in 1981, it was virtually given away to OEMs building IBM PC clones for a flat fee.  Clearly, MSFT viewed this as a race to sell applications (also including the programming languages that comprised its main business) as opposed to the OS.

For a vivid account of early Microsoft history and the tale of how a couple of intelligent, determined youngsters, who thought out of the box and had the courage to act on their convictions, created what would become one of the most formidable companies in history, read the splendid Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire
by James Wallace and Jim Erickson.

As announced in April at Build 2014 conference, Windows is now free to OEMs for smartphones and devices of screen size 9 inches or less, and windows now has lower processor and storage requirements. While Windows still has roughly 90% market share in PCs, the overall variegated market of computing devices has vastly increased in the last 10 years, so that Windows has less than 20% market share of that wider universe.  There are large markets for MSFT software.

OEMs have responded vigorously to this overture. For example, more than 11 (up from 3) signed up for Windows phone in the first quarter of this year.  It is important to note that since android OEMS must still pay license fees to MSFT, a $0 Windows Phone license costs them less than Android.

A lower cost Windows opens up markets on devices, as in the past, to Microsoft apps. These include both consumer oriented apps such as Xbox music, video and games, productivity apps including office 365, and services to manage devices for businesses. Over 2 years ago MSFT began writing a version of Office for iOS. When finally released in late March, it was  downloaded almost 30 million times in less than two months.  CEO Satya Nadella has articulated the vision of “Cloud First, Mobile First”, and that Microsoft will focus on “platforms and services”.  From the vantage point of BYOD, this means that businesses will use MSFT productivity applications on popular devices, on the respective different platforms, and manage mobile devices with MSFT Cloud based subscription services such as Microsoft Intune.

A third way MSFT is increasing competitiveness is by partnering with competing software service and platform providers. For the past 2 years, because there is demand for services from other providers in the public cloud, Windows Azure has increasingly accommodated services on 3rd party platforms running on Linux or from other providers such as Salesforce, SAP, Oracle and many, many others. This has produced a hockey stick upshift in Azure revenue growth.  See here for more on how Microsoft is levering its market dominance in productivity applications and services to gain market share in the Cloud, from which it wields the Cloud First, Mobile First strategy.