Microsoft Earnings: They Really Are A "Big" Deal


Microsoft's earnings may be the most anticipated report from the tech sector, and possibly the most anticipated report during the earnings season, and here's why:

The company is just as big a deal in this country as it is in Europe, Asia, emerging markets. Its numbers could be a referendum on software sales, hardware sales, all kinds of technology spending, the health and welfare of consumer as well as enterprise spending.

Analysts will be watching for a number of key metrics from Microsoft later today. Sure, they'll need to see Microsoft meet or beat the anticipated $16 billion in revenue and 46 cents a share--but there are several other areas that will also enjoy enormous attention.

We know Vista is selling particularly well, thanks to a kind of pre-announcement from Bill Gates during his keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show, showing licenses had already topped 100 million copies:far faster than the company anticipated. But as much as we focus on the consumer side of Microsoft's business, it really only accounts for about 10 percent or 12 percent of the total picture.

That means analysts will be looking at "client revenue" and "office" revenue with a keen eye; what Microsoft is seeing on the corporate, enterprise side of things. There's little question that the company enjoyed a very healthy second fiscal quarter (calendar fourth quarter), but all eyes will be on what the company has to say about the current quarter, what its expectations are.

Guidance should be in the $14.75 billion range on the top line; 44 or 45 cents on the bottom line, so when you see a big fall-off from one quarter to the next, don't bristle. That kind of seasonal decline is expected and already built into shares.

The other high point for Microsoft comes on the entertainment and device side of the business. Brendan Barnicle at Pacific Crest Securities tells me he's expecting $3 billion in revenue; the president of the division, Robbie Bach, told me at CES that worries about a recession could actually be good news for Xbox since consumers tend to hunker down and look for entertainment at home.

That's perfect for a gaming console, and recent numbers from NPD suggest that Xbox saw 4.3 million units sold during the holiday shopping season, second to Wii, and way ahead of Sony's PlayStation 3. Zune also is enjoying strong reviews, and was in short supply during the holiday shopping quarter, but huge numbers there aren't expected.

On a more broad basis, PC sales, according to IDC and Gartner, also seemed rosier than what Microsoft itself had projected--15.5 percent and 13.1 percent respectively. Microsoft was looking for something akin to 11 percent to 13 percent.

Even the company's Search business saw some slight gains, says Nielsen Online, now controlling 14 percent of the search market, gaining on Yahoo's 18 percent for second place, but still a distant third behind the Google juggernaut of 56 percent.

Pacific Crest's Barnicle is also looking for an earnings bump of between $150 million and $250 million just from favorable currency trends and that could help the company beat EPS estimates today.

There's little chance that Microsoft will stun the Street the way it did last quarter, with a billion-dollar revenue surprise and a 6-cent-a-share EPS beat; but that doesn't mean investors aren't hoping for something special.

Shares jumped 20 percent last quarter thanks to those earnings, but have been trailing off, along with the rest of the market since Jan. 1, and that's leading some to think good news today will be handsomely rewarded.