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Microsoft's Surface turns first profit in 2 years

Gregg Keizer | Oct. 27, 2014
But gross margins -- between 9% and 13% -- aren't sufficient to sustain a profitable business.

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After two years and nearly $2 billion in losses, Microsoft's Surface turned a profit in the September quarter, the company said Thursday.

For the three months ending Sept. 30, Microsoft recorded $908 million in revenue for the Surface tablet line, an increase of 127% over the same quarter in 2013. The nearly one billion in revenue was a one-quarter record for the Surface, and beat the combined revenue of the previous two quarters.

Using information in Microsoft's filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), as well as data from earlier quarters, Computerworld calculated the quarter's cost of that revenue at $786 million, leaving a gross margin of $122 million. Cost of revenue is the cost to make and sell a product, but excludes expenses such as advertising and R&D.

Microsoft said that the Surface line posted a positive gross margin -- implying that outside estimates of prior losses were correct -- but did not disclose a dollar figure.

According to Computerworld's estimate, the margin was small, about 13.4%. That's more than the average for a Windows personal computer, but less than half or a third of the margins on tablets like Apple's iPad.

It was even smaller by the figuring of Jan Dawson, principal analyst at Jackdaw Research, who has also used Microsoft's SEC filings to estimate the Surface's cost of revenue. He pegged the September quarter's cost of revenue at $825 million, the gross margin at $83 million, and the margin rate at just 9.1%.

"That's a gross margin ... which is not earth-shattering and in fact about half the gross margin of the phone business at Microsoft. But it's progress," Dawson wrote on his blog, where he published his analysis of Surface's financial performance.

Indeed.

Since its October 2012 introduction, Surface has been a money pit for Microsoft, in the hole to the tune of $1.73 billion through its first seven quarters. With the September quarter in the black, those overall losses have been reduced to about $1.6 billion.

Over the last four quarters, Surface also remained in the red, with losses of $325 million on revenue of $2.7 billion. Put another way, for each dollar Microsoft earned on Surface sales, it lost about 12 cents.

But were the brighter figures for the September quarter an accurate picture of what Microsoft really spent on the Surface? No, said Dawson and others.

"There's a long way to go to get to the kind of gross margins that would lead to true profitability once marketing and other costs are factored in," Dawson said.

Ben Thompson, the independent analyst behind Stratechery.com, agreed in his subscription-only Daily Update of Friday. "What is all but certain, though, is that this segment, once you include advertising and channel, was still quite unprofitable, and likely unprofitable by a lot," Thompson wrote of Microsoft's Computing and Gaming Hardware division, which generates the bulk of it revenue from Surface and Xbox sales.

 

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