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Microsoft: Never mind the cash. Look at its products

Microsoft logos hang over their booth on the opening day of the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in this file photo taken January 10, 2012.

RICK WILKING/REUTERS

I am so often tempted to recommend Microsoft Corp. stock, because I see all that cash on the balance sheet, and the cash flow, and that cash dividend, and, because... cash.

And then I use a Microsoft product and the urge deserts me.

This time around, it's Outlook's habit of re-downloading all 35,000 emails on the server on each of my three computers every time Microsoft releases an update to Office.

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(Should I have 35,000 emails on the server? No. Should I be treating a POP server as an IMAP server? No. Is the best solution to this to switch to Gmail? Yes.)

I bring this up because there seems to be some excitement about the release of Windows 8 Friday. Comically so, really.

Take the three separate stories on Microsoft in Monday's Wall Street Journal. The company, we learn, is "taking a page from Apple Inc. and Google Inc." by using touchscreens and apps. Microsoft "also is emulating Apple and Google in other ways," we later learn.

Reading this, I longed for Microsoft to get the full-throated treatment the Wall Street Journal reserves for its editorial pages. There, we might get closer to the truth: Microsoft has been copying the innovators in its space for the last three decades.

I am not an Apple fanboy (as evidenced by this article). But I have been an Apple user for 20 years. It is not because I am cooler than you are (I am quite likely not). It is because I figured out early on that Apple computers were easier to use, worked better, were less susceptible to viruses, et cetera, et cetera.

But we don't have to make this purely an Apple-versus-PC discussion. In what, please tell me, has Microsoft been ahead of the curve in the last, oh, I don't know, 30 years?

The company's only new-product offering that has worked is the Xbox, which is now No. 1 in the market. I asked Owen Good, a former colleague who is now a gaming writer for Kotaku, the video game publication of Gawker Media, if it represented true innovation. "Its main distinction — online multi-player, evolving to an online service — was introduced two years earlier by the Dreamcast," he replied.

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"That said," Mr. Good added, in an unusually charitable addendum, "it has led all other consoles by far in online features, and innovated within that structure."

So we'll give them that. Innovating within a structure somebody else came up with.

And, similarly, by Microsoft standards, Windows 8 is innovative, what with tiles filling the screen. Some advance users say it's easy to use; others say it's hard.

What it might be is a turnoff to people who like crappy and comfy computing experiences, which has been Microsoft's large and highly profitable core market for several decades. If people wanted the features in Windows 8, they would already have bought an Apple. If they wanted this stuff on their phone, they would already have bought an iPhone or an Android.

If I want stock in a company that represents the profitable future of tech, I'm not buying Microsoft.

Readers: What do you think? Should cash be king when it comes to buying a stock? Or do mediocre products kill your balance-sheet-inspired enthusiasm as well?

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About the Author
Business and investing reporter and columnist

A business journalist since 1994, David Milstead began writing for The Globe and Mail in 2009. During eight years at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, Colo., he individually or jointly won nine national awards from SABEW, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. He has also worked at the Wall Street Journal. More

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