For large tech companies nothing is sexier right now than moonshots. These grandiose, daring plans attract positive news stories, make the company more desirable to potential hires and excite investors who may buy more stock.
Amazon has received plenty of free publicity and interest for its talk of delivering packages with drones. Monday, Google held the spotlight with the latest development in its self-driving car. The company has cleverly lifted the curtain ever so slightly on its once secretive innovations lab (Google X), because it knows positive stories will be published.
Facebook turned heads when it bought Oculus Rift — the maker of virtual-reality technology that appears to have absolutely no connection to Facebook’s core business. But chief executive Mark Zuckerberg talks of using virtual reality to help billions worldwide share spaces and experiences. Some of these companies’ moonshots will certainly fail, but the excitement and buzz they generate is worth it.
Amazon, Google and Facebook all have something else in common — a higher price-to-earnings ratio than Microsoft. A high price-to-earning ratio indicates that investors expect a company to grow, so they will pay a premium to own stock in it. It’s worth noting that the other tech giant, Apple, which is notoriously tight-lipped about its upcoming plans, has a low price-to-earnings ratio comparable to Microsoft. When you aren’t hyping your next innovation, investors aren’t going to be convinced you will grow.
The recent narrative on Microsoft isn’t one of remarkable world-changing ideas and innovation. It was late to embrace smartphones and tablets, and must cling to the Windows and Office businesses. Former chief executive Steve Ballmer was memorably skeptical of the iPhone’s potential (It’s since gone on to be arguable the most successful product ever).
But with a new chief executive in Satya Nadella, Microsoft has a perfect opening to prove to the world it can still innovate.
For the past 10 years Microsoft’s stock has trailed the S&P 500 index. It’s not the remarkable growth company it was during the ’90s. In fairness, part of the challenge is just how big it is. For a company with a market cap of $337 billion to grow significantly is much harder than for a smaller company.
Google has run into the problem of the law of large numbers — its market cap is similar to Microsoft’s — yet it remains a company that is seen to have a bright and growing future. Google has branched off into potential growth areas, gobbling up robot companies and developing a self-driving car. Most still see Microsoft as the company of Office and Windows.
But Microsoft may be fixing that as it gets into the moonshot game.
It’s long had Microsoft Research, home to 1,100 scientists and engineers, yet their work hasn’t been fawned over like what happens at Google X. New branding may change that. A recent job listing mentions a “Special Projects” team within Microsoft Research that would work “on disruptive technologies that could benefit the company and society.” Another posting describes the team as “a new startup group focused on disruptive next-generation technologies.”
That all sounds quite a bit like what Google chief executive Larry Page says when he explains why disruptive companies can be more valuable to society than traditional charities.
ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley has reported that Norman Whitaker, a former program manager at DARPA, will lead the Special Projects team. Given DARPA’s track record, it’s easy to see excitement over what his new team could dream up.
It’s unclear if the Special Projects group will pull off anything special. But if its high-minded goals could win the hearts of investors and potential employees, that will go a long way toward returning Microsoft to its glory years.
Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.