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Microsoft - do you really think you can take on Google with Nokia?

You're a bit tardy to phone catch-up party

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Blocks and Files Microsoft's purchase of Nokia's phones business – which outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer has since described as a way for Redmond "to accelerate" – appears to be an attempt to add another weapon to its anti-Google arsenal.

Ballmer is quoted as saying: "By the early part of this year it was clear to me that perhaps acquisition would be a way to accelerate. I called [Nokia board of directors chairman] Risto [Siilasmaa] right after the first of the year sometime in January, early February. We met at Mobile World Congress."

El Reg's storage desk believes Microsoft may be playing a strategic IT marketing war with the Googleplex squarely in its sights.

Microsoft is paying €5.44bn in cash (about $7bn) for the once-mighty Finnish mobile phone company's Devices and Services business and for the licensing of Nokia’s patents.

Let's look at the counter-Google armaments Microsoft already has in its weapons store:

  • We have Bing, Microsoft's search engine, going up against Google's own search tech.
  • We have Azure going up against the Google cloud.
  • We have Microsoft's SkyDrive product going up against Google's cloud storage.
  • We have the Windows family of operating systems – PCs, notebooks, tablets and mobile phones – going up against Google's Android device software.
  • We have the Internet Explorer browser going up against Chrome.
  • We have Microsoft Office going up against Google Docs, etc.

Yesterday's purchase adds two new weapons.

  • Microsoft's Nokia Lumia phones, which will now be pitted against Google's Motorola units.
  • Microsoft is licensing Nokia's really decent mobile mapping services, which will be competition for Google maps.

Timing is everything...

Since Google has become the business juggernaut it is today, no one has beaten it at anything significant yet.

At the same time, we have Microsoft announcing CEO Steve Ballmer's departure from his post within the next 12 months – at a time when dedicated and directed and ultra-committed leadership is required.

On top of that, Microsoft's board has just caved in to a pissant activist investor, ValueAct Capital, which holds just 0.8 per cent of Microsoft's stock and potentially giving it board-level representation.

Companies like Dell, Emulex, Quantum, and others in the IT and storage areas twist and turn and fight prolonged battles against activist investors. Why has Microsoft's board behaved this way?

Ex-Microsoftie Stephen Elop was Nokia's CEO before the acquisition. With Nokia about to join Microsoft's Windows Phone business, he becomes Nokia Executive Vice President of Devices and Services until the deal closes. Elop is expected to run Microsoft's new Devices and Studios business unit. The expanded unit, which up until now was responsible for Surface tablets and "entertainment", which includes "games, music, video and other entertainment", will now fold in phones as well.

Elop's canned quote talked about bringing together "the best of Microsoft’s software engineering with the best of Nokia’s product engineering, award-winning design, and global sales, marketing and manufacturing".

The Nokia exec added: "With this combination of talented people, we have the opportunity to accelerate the current momentum and cutting-edge innovation of both our smart devices and mobile phone products."

Cue the Lumia-isation of Microsoft's ARM-based tablets.

Ballmer's last stand

The Nokia phone biz purchase is probably Ballmer's swan song. Having achieved that, he can cut loose with satisfaction. The big unknown is who will be Microsoft's next CEO. That person will have to pick up the reins of Ballmer's cavalry, preparing to challenge Google head on, and ride 'em full tilt at Sergey Brin and Larry Page's colossus.

What about Apple? It's a secondary target, if anything, at least according to this industry hack. Vulture South points to a Microsoft presentation (PDF) identifying both Apple and Google. But my opinion is that Google is a bigger threat to Microsoft than Apple; it is going after Redmond's monster business software products and services cash cow – the part it really values – whereas Apple isn't.

Traditionally Microsoft has been at its most focused, directed and effective going up against single enemies: witness the fate of Netscape, Lotus, Novell and others. So it's going against Google first, and fighting marketing war on one main front.

Can it succeed in taking on Google with a CEO who is waiting on his successor?

Many other Microsoft-watchers seem to be waiting for it to announce that successor as Elop. But if it was, why not say so now and have done with it? On that basis we'd reckon Elop is not Redmond's next boss. Maybe it's a case of "Take on Google and win, and the job's yours".

But still, it's nuts for Ballmer to have announced his pending resignation at this time.

All of the Microsoft smart mobile device and services weaponry appears to be aimed at the Google target – apparently with Elop's finger on the trigger, with an outgoing CEO to guide him. Wow. Talk about making big bets. ®

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