Microsoft has a nasty problem: figuring out what to do with $31.6 billion in cash. We can picture a sleep-deprived Bill Gates and a red-eyed Steve Ballmer toiling away night after night, trying to get Microsoft out of this predicament. It must be tough. So we decided to help them out by making a few suggestions on how Microsoft should spend its cash hoard.
We're going to propose a variety of acquisitions. While the company hasn't historically had an acquisitive culture, that seems to be changing. Last November, Microsoft hired Richard Emerson--a former managing director at the investment bank Lazard Frères--to head its mergers and acquisitions division. A month later, the company announced the purchase of the software developer Great Plains Software for $1.1 billion.
The only possible hitch could be its ongoing legal battle with the U.S. Department of Justice and 18 state governments regarding antitrust violations. Sources interviewed for this article, however, say that a settlement is the most likely outcome for the legal dispute, and that such a resolution would cost Microsoft between $1 billion and $2 billion. But that's chump change. Here's what it should do with the rest of the dough.
First, we think Microsoft should buy the security software developer Symantec. Microsoft software has often been plagued by security concerns, and acquiring Symantec would improve its product line with powerful antivirus and firewall capabilities. Since Symantec has a better mix of desktop and enterprise products than other companies in the sector, acquiring Symantec would buy more bang for Microsoft's buck than, say, springing for Network Associates. The deal, however, wouldn't be cheap. We put the cost of such a purchase at $4.2 billion, based on a 20 percent premium to Symantec's market value as of August 14.
Microsoft should also buy the ISP EarthLink. The acquisition would strengthen Microsoft's own MSN franchise by adding 4.8 million users, bringing the subscriber base to 11 million. It would also bring Microsoft a step closer to arch rival America Online, the leading ISP, which boasts almost 30 million users. "I'd like to see Microsoft do this deal," says Henry Blodget, an analyst at Merrill Lynch. So would we. The cost? A mere $2.1 billion.
While they're at it, it would be wise for Microsoft to acquire companies that can help expand its .Net platform for selling services and software on a subscription basis. One way to do so would be to spruce up its thriving bCentral Web site and Great Plains...