Several days ago, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) briefly surpassed Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) in market cap to become the world’s most valuable company. If I told you in 2012 that this would happen, you probably would have thought I was crazy. At the time, Apple was worth $600 billion — Microsoft was at half that and the company appeared to stuck in the past. However, Microsoft will go down as a historic case study of how a tired company can reinvent itself and return to its former glory.
Once upon a time, almost twenty years ago, Microsoft also was the world’s most valuable company. Its valuation briefly hit $600 billion during the dot-com boom. It would proceed to lose up to two-thirds of its value by the end of 2008. Investors left the Windows and Office company for dead.
Now Microsoft has roared back, with its market cap at $845 billion as of this writing. That’s only a hair behind Apple at $855 billion. And Microsoft has moved ahead of a former trillion-dollar market cap club member, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), which sits at $820 billion. Another former candidate for world’s most valuable company, Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL), has faded to fourth place at $760 billion.
How Microsoft Returned to Glory
Arguably, the story starts with leadership. Former CEO Steve Ballmer lacked the strategic vision to lead Microsoft in the evolving tech world. As recently as 2013, Ballmer still felt that Windows was the future of the company. He wrote at the time that: “I am convinced that by deploying our smart-cloud assets across a range of devices, we can make Windows devices once again the devices to own.”
In short order, he bought Nokia and tried to push Windows Phones as the next big thing. His quote showed Microsoft’s then-backward priorities. Instead of pushing cloud services as the next big thing, he wanted to use Microsoft’s skills to shore up Windows. This missed the fact that few people feel much actual affinity to Windows as a brand.
Just five years later, under new leadership from CEO Satya Nadella, Microsoft shut down Windows as an operating division of the company. It split part of the team into its Azure cloud offering, with others going to the Office 365 division.
Microsoft has increasingly become a risk-taking company again, finding fresher blood. It has made big acquisitions, such as the purchases of LinkedIn and Github. It’s unclear how well these will work out in the long run, but it shows a strong move away from just milking the Windows cash cow. More importantly, the company has many levers to pull in terms of growth going forward and, for the first time in a while, a cohesive strategy for getting there.
MSFT Stock: Many Ways to Win
Ironically, despite giving up on Windows as the everywhere operating system, the company has more consumer lock-in than ever. Purchases such as LinkedIn and Github have given the company access to a ton of passionate users. It makes it easier for them to cross-market everything from Office to cloud services to even Xbox gaming.
Microsoft is acquiring an enormous amount of user data. The sheer span of the number of services it offers gives it almost Google-like insight into many of its users. The company appears set to use this unprecedented level of knowledge to spearhead its aggressive move into AI services.
It isn’t just relying on big-time acquisitions to move the needle either. The Azure cloud offering, which revived and transformed Microsoft’s business, was an in-house affair. The company, after missing the mark on so many things, such as phones, finally caught a trend early. It is now a dominate No. 2 in the cloud space, trailing only Amazon Web Services. Its strength should continue to grow as smaller competitors drop out, leaving market share to consolidate around the top four or five cloud offerings.
On top of that, Microsoft has some more speculative things in the works. These include various plans for the Internet of Things, along with its HoloLens augmented reality platform. By ditching its obsession with Windows at all costs, Microsoft has opened an attractive range of services from social media to productivity, hardware, virtual reality and the cloud.
The Market Is Buying Microsoft’s Story
For all the noise we’ve heard about the plunge in FAANG stocks, Microsoft largely missed the wreckage. MSFT stock never dropped more than 10% during this correction — and it has bounced back quickly. At this point, MSFT stock is within 5% of its all-time high, whereas Alphabet and Amazon are about 15% down from their highs and AAPL stock lingers in bear market territory, down 20%. That reflects the market’s growing perception that, as crazy as it sounds, Microsoft has the best growth prospects of the leading tech companies.
Think about it. Alphabet is getting hit with fines and regulatory trouble all over the place. Amazon is piling up negative media attention and Trump threats. Apple faces questions about iPhone demand and where its next growth driver will come from. Microsoft, at least for the moment, is facing none of these serious risks. Its Windows and Office mainstays continue throwing off cash, and the Azure cloud business is exploding. As much as MSFT stock has risen in recent quarters, the trend still appears safely higher for some time yet.
At the time of this writing, Ian Bezek held no positions in any of the aforementioned securities. You can reach him on Twitter at @irbezek.