I had the opportunity to attend my third Microsoft VC Summit in California on Thursday. It was a great opportunity for VCs to network with Microsoft's top executives. This year's focus was on Unified Communications, Saas, and Windows Live (includes MSN). While I won't go into excruciating detail on the sessions, one of the highlights wass having Steve Ballmer give a frank discussion on how VCs and startups can work with Microsoft. He made it very clear that the pace of acquisitions has increased, rising from 9 the prior year to 22 this past year. And of course, his Corp Dev team has told Steve that they have the biggest pipeline of deals they have seen in years. For those who care, the sweet spot for Microsoft is to buy a more engineering and technology focused company versus a sales and marketing oriented one. In terms of price, I thought I heard acquisitions in the $50mm - 200mm range but Don Dodge of Microsoft (I suggest reading his post on the acquisitions) seemed to hear differently. Anyway, the point is that there will be plenty of opportunities for VC-backed companies and startups to find a home in Microsoft. Interestingly enough, of the 22 companies that were bought this past year 1/3 of them were not venture-backed. This was surprising to Steve and also may be indicative of how many of the tech players have been snapping up interesting engineering teams and products before they really get to market.
One of the interesting questions posed by a VC was how Microsoft valued technology and engineering assets versus companies with lots of customers and revenues. In short, Steve had a simple answer in that Microsoft knows how much a technology asset or new product is worth to Microsoft and then they can compare that to what the value would be using more traditional financial metrics. In the end, Steve rightly said that it comes down to a negotiation since revenue ratios, etc. really do not apply to a bunch of engineers and it comes down to what the VC needs in terms of multiples and what the founders need to get the deal done. I suggest keeping an eye out for Microsoft as it feels like they may even do more than the 22 acquisitions they did this past year. As far as opportunities and trends are concerned, Steve pointed out the usual suspects:
- Consumer market drives enterprise expectations
- Open source - more pragmatism coming to the market, not just a religion but needs to deliver real value
- SaaS - it works, it will grow, but there are still some opportunities like no higher level platform in the cloud - for example, how do you make presence work from site to site
- Office 2007 - biggest area of innovation for Microsoft, think of Office as a client to all data, front end to SAP as an example. Also will include Office Communicator in Office 2007 with Word, Excel, etc. highlighting how important communications and collaboration will be. Btw, Office Communicator is SIP-based.
- Mobility - Steve believes the hype was higher a couple years ago and that the reality is bigger today as we have smarter more intelligent devices at cheaper prices running over faster networks. There will be a need for software to help intelligent devices in the cloud to talk to each other.
- WPF/E allows a subset of XAML to be rendered in a browser on IE and Firefox on Windows and Safari (Firefox?) on OS X (Linux and Solaris support uncertain).
- This subset consists of a pretty impressive set of functionality, including: 2D vector graphics, advanced text rendering, audio/video playback, imaging, animation, and advanced composition of graphical elements. In short, all of the pretty eye-candy coming in the new WinFX APIs with the exception of 3D graphics and the Metro document rendering (i.e., MSFT’s PDF killer; my my, they are really going after Adobe, aren’t they?).
Given the rich, interactive functionality that WPF and WPF/e offers end users and the productivity improvements it provides for developers and designers, I do believe that this will be one technology that will gain traction in the years ahead.