Microsoft’s resurgence continues, driven by strength in cloud and gaming

Microsoft’s results demonstrated a continued upward trajectory, with the cloud and gaming units standing out with particularly strong performances.

Since wrapping up the last financial year by breaking the $100 billion annual revenue mark three months ago, Microsoft should not have been immune to the recent financial market gloom hanging over the technology sector. But the Q1 results of its financial year 2019 published on Wednesday are telling a different story.

On corporate level, the total revenue was $29.1 billion, up by 19% over the same period last year, and net income reached $8.8 billion, up by 34%, indicating an excellent management of both the top line and bottom line.

“We are off to a great start in fiscal 2019, a result of our innovation and the trust customers are placing in us to power their digital transformation,” said CEO Satya Nadella. “We’re excited to help our customers build the digital capability they need to thrive and grow, with a business model that is fundamentally aligned to their success.”

All the business units have registered growth, but the most impressive part is how balanced the company has become.

Microsoft Financials Q3 2018

More Personal Computing continued to be the largest revenue contributor with $10.7 billion, an increase of 15%; this is a story of two extremes. Standing out in this group is the gaming division, which reported a revenue growth of 44%, with Xbox software and services revenue up by 36%, indicating its strategy to tie exclusive titles from gaming companies is reaping rewards. At the other end of the spectrum, Windows OEM grew by 3%, further proof that the PC market is slowing, but the pronouncement of its demise is still premature. Between the two extremes sat search advertising (Bing) which grew by 17%, Surface up by 14% indicating the new models are winning some traction, and Windows commercial products and cloud services, up by 12%.

Productivity and Business Processes contributed $9.8 billion in revenue, an increase of 19%. The Office commercial and consumer products and cloud service as the business application suite Dynamics all registered healthy growth, but what caught our eyes was the 33% revenue growth by LinkedIn, and a 34% increase in average session length. The revenue numbers may still be small (it is not disclosed separately) but it is a sign that two years after the $26 billion acquisition of the professional social network Microsoft is turning it around. This is particularly impressive when compared to the lacklustre performance reported by Facebook recently.

Intelligent Cloud, the smallest of the three business units by revenue reported the highest growth rate of 24%. Azure continued to deliver stellar numbers, its revenue increased by 76%. This may be lower than the 90% growth it reported last quarter but would surely be the envy of any other company.

If Microsoft’s mobile first strategy flopped badly a few years ago, its cloud first strategy is definitely paying off. As Amy Hood, the CFO said, “We see continued demand for our cloud offerings, reflected in our commercial cloud revenue of $8.5 billion, up 47% year over year.”

The management is confident in the next quarter, giving bullish guidance during the earnings call

Microsoft looks to take Xbox experience onto mobile

Microsoft has announced the launch of Project xCloud to take the world of Xbox gaming onto mobile.

The idea is a relatively simple one. Gaming is traditionally a better experience on consoles which are specifically designed for gaming, but Microsoft wants to take this experience into the mobile world of tablets and smartphones. Trials will start next year and will allow gamers to take the same content from games built for the Xbox console and PC onto their smartphones, using a Bluetooth enabled handset or an under-development touch overlay.

“The future of gaming is a world where you are empowered to play the games you want, with the people you want, whenever you want, wherever you are, and on any device of your choosing,” said Kareem Choudhry, Corporate VP of Gaming Cloud at Microsoft. “Our vision for the evolution of gaming is similar to music and movies – entertainment should be available on demand and accessible from any screen. Today, I’m excited to share with you one of our key projects that will take us on an accelerated journey to that future world: Project xCloud.”

Compatibility with existing and future Xbox games has been enabled by building out custom hardware in Microsoft data centres. The team have architected a new customizable blade that can host the component parts of multiple Xbox One consoles, as well as the associated infrastructure supporting it. The custom blades will be scaled out through the Azure cloud regions over time.

Currently, the test experience is running at 10 Mbps, though the team are keen to bring this down while still maintaining the same experience for gamers through advances in networking topology, and video encoding and decoding. The idea is to ensure these games can be played on 4G networks, though getting the bitrate down might be a tough ask considering the depth and interactivity of the content on consoles such as Xbox.

One thing is very clear; gaming is just another aspect of the mobile world which is pressing the case for 5G.

Microsoft has an ambition to ensure this content will be able to meet consumer experience demands on 4G networks, though this is a selfish view on networking. These games are incredibly immersive and will place additional strain on the network. For the telcos, the issue is not the singular demands of browsing, video or gaming, but the sum of all the parts. Gaming is just another item which has been thrown on top of the teetering pile of network strain. The efficiency gains of 5G will soon become a necessity, not the buffering-free cat video gains of today.

Looking at the gaming industry, growth is gaining momentum fast. Research from Newzoo suggests mobile gaming will generate $70.3 billion across 2018, accounting for roughly 51% of the industry total. This equates to 25% year-on-year growth, compared to 4.1% growth on consoles, such as Xbox, which is expected to account for $34.6 billion. Mobile’s share of gaming is expected to increase to 59% by 2021, taking $106.4 billion. Asia will account for the majority of this spend, though the gains will be experienced in every region.

An excellent example of the surge of mobile of gaming is Fortnite. While this might be a title most play through consoles or on PC, the most recent update for the game saw 60% surge in data traffic over normal peak traffic levels on Verizon’s broadband network, as well as a 5-8% jump on mobile.

The tsunami of mobile gaming titles over the last 4-5 years has improved the accessibility of gaming for the general public, though the complexity of these games in also growing. While this segment of mobile content might have been simplistic to start with, think of Candy Crush, more in-depth games are becoming increasingly popular with the general public. The proportion of games which require constant connectivity is also increasing. Should the Microsoft project prove to be successful, both in terms of operation and adoption, these trends will only be accelerated.

Gaming is no longer a niche, and pretty soon it will start to weigh heavily on the network.

Microsoft gives VR another kick in the teeth

The virtual reality segment might have been gathering some momentum over recent months, but Microsoft’s neglect of VR for its Xbox platform adds another dent into the credibility of the technology.

It’s been a tough week for the VR enthusiasts. IDC research estimated sales declined 30.5% year-on-year over the first quarter, largely thanks to telcos unbundling the devices from premium contracts and handset deals, while a snub from one of the biggest gaming platforms on the planet will not help the situation either.

Speaking in an interview with Gamesindustry.biz, Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer for the gaming business, Mike Nichols, confirmed there was little or no work being done for virtual or mixed reality, at least when looking at Xbox.

“We don’t have any plans specific to Xbox consoles in virtual reality or mixed reality,” said Nichols. “Our perspective on it has been and continues to be that the PC is probably the best platform for more immersive VR and MR. As an open platform, it just allows faster, more rapid iteration. There are plenty of companies investing in it in the hardware side and the content side, or some combination therein.

“Obviously on phones, augmented reality is a good scenario as well that’s going to grow. But as it relates to Xbox, no. Our focus is primarily on experiences you would play on your TV, and ultimately we’d like to make those experiences more broadly.”

For the VR community, this could be a very worrying view. The influence of PCs in the consumers life is declining rapidly, while gaming consoles such as Xbox remaining a constant. The PC will never disappear, and should the connected anywhere PC take off there might be a resurgence, but being limited to a dying area of the technology world should not be viewed as a positive.

Looking at the advertising and promotional campaigns for the general public, it is clear the VR community feels TV is a perfectly suitable platform for the technology. Almost every advert you see which has some element of VR in it focuses on the living room, billing the technology as a way to bring families together, but with Xbox not considering the platform appropriate for the technology, prospects are slightly dampened.

VR will have a place in the world at some point, but the road is proving a very bumpy ride right now.