A lesson in economics for the CFO of Microsoft

I happened across this little tidbit a few days ago and was a little surprised that someone as high up as the CFO of Microsoft might actually think this way.

Microsoft CFO Chris Liddle had this to say on a conference call after their Q3 earnings report.

Businesses’ reluctance to upgrade PCs, he said, has to fade eventually. “This can’t continue forever,” Liddell said. “Eventually those PCs wear out and have to be replaced. We hope and expect (the refresh cycle) to be next year.”

I realize that picking on Microsoft is like trying to hit the broad side of a barn with a rock, but this is just so easy I can’t help myself. Really Chris? Are you kidding me? I’m sure that as the CFO of Microsoft, you probably think that computers break every three years like magic. The warranty on the hardware expires and *POOF*, the computer dies and is thrown in the recycling bin, along with all the Microsoft software that was installed. Naturally, this happens in every company around the world, and naturally they all rush out and buy a brand new computer and brand new software for every employee as soon as the first one breaks.

The reality is that it just doesn’t work that way.

Skeptics who read my blog are going to point out that he said “eventually”. I’ll concede the point that “eventually” everything is going to wear out, but he “expects” that to be next year. Computers tend to be different than most other physical goods and if this recession has shown people anything, it’s that doing a full hardware refresh for the entire company every three years is no longer necessary. In fact, I would argue that it hasn’t really been necessary for the last three years. So what makes the next three any different?

The answer is absolutely nothing.

Companies across the world said loud and clear “We’re not going to upgrade our operating systems to that piece of garbage you call Vista.” And you know the kicker?


Amazing. Just absolutely amazing. People still bought new hardware though. So, lets talk about why.

Corporate Hardware Refreshes

Companies have a tendency to replace PC’s every 3 years because they want to, not necessarily because they need to. From around 1995 – 2007, companies were conditioned to buy new computers for every employee every 3 – 5 years because the hardware was so dramatically improved in the course of 3 years that they could see instant productivity gains. At the time, buying newer hardware was a relatively inexpensive way to get great productivity increases out of workers for relatively low cost. Moore’s law essentially held true and every 18 months, processing power would double. This loosely translated to doubling the speed of computers every 18 months.

Then the speed of silicon hit a brick wall and it wasn’t cost effective to get faster processors. But Moore’s Law persevered for a bit longer and on May 25, 2005 Intel released the Pentium D. With that release, multi-core processors started to take over the market. Instead of faster processors, you have more of them in a single chip. And the business world was content with the Pentium D, Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, Athlon MP, Athlon XP, and all the other multi-core processors that came out.

Suddenly,  it’s 2007 and Microsoft releases Vista and it bombs hard core. People still refresh their PC’s because they think they need to, but they choose not to upgrade to Vista, instead choosing a 5 year old operating system for their brand spanking new hardware. Now here’s the problem.

All these companies bought dual processor computers with beefed up hardware specs because that’s what it would have taken to run Vista. Compliments of Wikipedia, below are the minimum hardware requirements to run Vista.

Windows Vista system requirements[51]
Vista Capable Vista Premium Ready
Processor 800 MHz[60] 1 GHz
Memory 512 MB 1 GB
Graphics card DirectX 9.0 capable DirectX 9.0 capable and WDDM 1.0 driver support
Graphics memory 32 MB 128 MB
HDD capacity 20 GB 40 GB
HDD free space 15 GB
Other drives DVD-ROM

And here are the specs for Windows 7:

Minimum hardware requirements for Windows 7[94]
Architecture 32-bit 64-bit
Processor 1 GHz 32-bit processor 1 GHz 64-bit processor
Memory (RAM) 1 GB of RAM 2 GB of RAM
Graphics Card DirectX 9 graphics processor with WDDM driver model 1.0 (For Aero)
HDD free space 16 GB of available disk space 20 GB of available disk space
Optical drive DVD drive (only to install from DVD/CD Media)

You’ll notice that the hardware requirements to run Windows 7 are basically the same as they were for Vista.

No business in their right mind bought a computer in 2007 that had a 1GHz processor. Not even notebooks were that lame and netbooks didn’t exist yet. At a minimum, they were at least 2GHz and had dual-core processors because that’s what it took to sell computers in 2007. Computers today are not significantly better than what was available in 2007, as much as Intel, AMD, Dell, HP and all the other computer manufacturers would like to have you believe. All of this means that the hardware refresh rate can be extended for those PC’s bought in 2007 with virtually no ill effects.

Some pretty smart companies over the past few years figured out that if you can extend a hardware refresh from every 3 years to every 4 years, the company will achieve a substantial 25% yearly savings. If you extend it from 3 years to 5 years, it becomes a 40% yearly savings. That means that a company with 1,000 employees using computers with an average cost of $1,500 are going to spend $500,000 on hardware alone every year if they do a complete hardware refresh every 3 years. If they are able to extend it to four years, they’ll save $125,000 each year and extending the hardware refresh to 5 years, saves $200k every year.

When the guy in charge of the IT budget is being forced to do more with less each year, he’s going to quickly realize that buying new hardware for every drone in the company isn’t going to help him do his job. He’s going to find places to cut the budget which doesn’t involve the lost of his employees. The hardware refresh cycle is the perfect place because there’s very little downside and a huge upside.

Why Companies Refresh Hardware

There’s a short list of reasons why companies use a 3 year hardware refresh rate.

  1. They have money to burn
  2. They’ve always done it that way
  3. The hardware today is so much better than it was 3 years ago
  4. The warranty on the hardware has expired

That’s about it. Until a few years go, the first three were true. They’re not anymore. As for the fourth, it’s called a warranty. Most major computer vendors offer 3 year warranties on computers for their corporate customers. Depending on your vendor, you may be able to swing a 4 or even a 5 year warranty for just a fraction of the cost. Replacing parts is a heck of a lot cheaper than replacing entire computers, so they’ll save buckets of cash by extending the hardware refresh, whether they get extended warranties or not.

Back to Microsoft

The latest hardware refresh has obviously been delayed for quite some time and it is impacting both Microsoft and the major computer vendors. As the economy improves, we’re going to see a lot of companies that initially pushed out their hardware refresh commit to it and spend the money. Microsoft will probably still sell millions of copies of Windows 7 and Bill Lumbergh’s stock will go up 1/4 of a point.

Unfortunately, many of these companies are going to realize that the latest hardware refresh didn’t do them a bit of good beyond renewing their hardware warranties. The next hardware refresh will get pushed out even longer as companies realize that it just isn’t necessary. When that happens, Microsoft is going to be in real trouble, as are the PC manufacturers whose major revenue source is selling hardware.

Earlier this year, Dell bought Perot Systems in an effort to boost their lucrative services arm and compete better with HP and IBM. Smart move. I think they see this coming and realize that the virtualization trend isn’t the only thing working against them. Moore’s law has been undergone a transition such that it now applies to overall computing power, not just raw speed. Past a certain point, 99% of corporate employees just don’t need more computing power. It’s going to waste. So why should you upgrade those PC’s?

The smart answer is: You don’t.

Microsoft needs to start looking ahead beyond Windows because it’s not going to be a cash cow for much longer. The fact that people are still using an operating system that is bearing down on 7 years old is telling, especially when it’s in preference to a more recent release. It means that customers don’t see a compelling reason to upgrade. This is part of the reason that Apple is doing so well with the Mac.

Without a compelling reason to upgrade, customers aren’t buying new licenses or upgrading old ones and Microsoft isn’t making nearly as much money. Microsoft uses the money they make from Windows to fund other business lines, so if the margin on Windows starts to falter 5 years out, they’re going to have to make some hard choices. It makes me wonder if I’ll even care in five years. Will you? Let me know your thoughts by commenting below.


  1. bizsugar.com on October 27, 2009 at 10:46 am

    A lesson in economics for the CFO of Microsoft…

    Microsoft seems to think that the next hardware refresh is going to save them. It might, but they’re in trouble if they think they can depend on it again. Here’s why….

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