Look for Windows 7 to Help Microsoft Emerge From Its Midlife Crisis

Last Updated Jan 17, 2010 4:43 PM EST

It's hard to look at a chart of Microsoft's stock over the last year and not think of the pudgy nebbish that Apple uses in its commercials to represent the software leviathan.

Microsoft has been ignored by investors who see it as a slow-growing silicon-based utility that has entered a sedate middle age, not the dynamic leading-edge enterprise of the 1980s and early '90s. The stock even pays a dividend, just like the ones that Grandma owns.

The result is a return of about 16 percent for the last 12 months, roughly half of the gain of the Nasdaq Composite Index. Microsoft fares even worse when compared to big tech rivals like Apple, Google and Cisco Systems, also Yahoo, the wretched company that it spent months trying to buy before reaching an arm's-length cooperative arrangement. All have handily beaten the Nasdaq.
If only Microsoft could be more like the cool guy that Apple uses as its flesh-and-blood avatar in the same spots. Microsoft probably wouldn't object if the public saw it as the annoying, precocious kid in its own commercials.

Don't count the company out just yet. That's the advice of Tom Forester, whose Forester Value Fund has achieved a strong track record in part by holding spurned blue chips, including Microsoft.

Forester points out that there are good things about reaching middle age - for a company anyway: stability, consistency, financial security. Those qualities are often ignored by technology investors, especially when the sector is enjoying a phenomenal run.

"You buy Microsoft not because you think it's going to be the sexy new kid on the block, but because you think longer term it's going to beat the market in a comfortable fashion," he explained. Microsoft provides "limited downside risk and meaningful upside potential. It's not a swing-for-the-fences kind of stock."

But it's not just a walk-in-the-park-in-sensible-shoes kind of stock either. Microsoft may get a bit of pep back in its step after the release this month of Windows 7, the latest incarnation of the operating system that all of Earth's inhabitants despise yet have on their computers nevertheless (except for Apple iconoclasts and brainy, geeky open-sourcers).

Early assessments of Windows 7 have been favorable to enthusiastic, including this one by CNET.com (a sister site to MoneyWatch.com within CBS Interactive). This is not what Microsoft is used to; XP was fairly well received after it came to market in 2001, then Vista was widely thrashed after its belated introduction early in 2007.

If 7 meets with a reaction similar to the one for XP - and the buzz seems far more favorable - then Microsoft stands to gain more business than many investors realize, thanks to a market leader's best friend: inertia.
"As long as it works and is effective, why learn something else?" Forester said, describing the typical user's thinking. "For me that's a big competitive advantage."

More important, a good reception for 7 could mean massive purchases from businesses that have been holding off upgrading their systems due either to doubts about the economy or doubts about Vista. Chances are they would be in the market for such items as Office productivity software too, not just Windows.

Holding Microsoft must be frustrating. The stock always seems to sell for $25, no matter what the market does, as investors move on to younger, shinier iterations of the next big thing.

They ignore a phenomenally profitable and well run business. On key measures of financial health and management effectiveness, such as operating margin and return on equity, Microsoft ranks far ahead of its more popular tech rivals.

The stock is cheaper too. The company won't grow as vigorously as Google or Apple, but shareholders aren't paying for anything they won't get.

They're not paying much for what they probably will get, either - improved growth for several years from Windows 7. That should ensure that the stock is strong, if not spectacular, on the way up while providing shelter against downturns. That may not be exciting, but it's pretty cool.