Microsoft Can Become Cool Again

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Jim Cramer and I disagree on the notion that Microsoft should buy Netflix . We don't see eye-to-eye on Reed Hastings' as a CEO. And we view the game of licensing streaming content from opposite ends of the table.

I get into this in Time Warner Punkslaps Netflix.

But at the heart of what really matters -- Microsoft becoming cool again and the future of how we consume content -- Cramer and I come together like two guys drinking a pint and watching the Leafs murder the Flyers after a long day on Wall Street.

On the Microsoft becoming cool again part, we agree completely. We just differ on how that will look within the context of television's future.

The business of licensing third-party content is a bad one to be in. It's expensive. And, no matter who you are, you really do not have an edge against big media conglomerates ranging from Time Warner to Comcast to Disney .

The brutal reality of this business has put Netflix into the financial mess it's in. Netflix should not be in the space. And it has basically tossed a "Hail Mary" pass with its feeble attempt to become anything that even resembles HBO.


The only reason why companies such as Google and Amazon.com bother with any of this is to extend their ecosystems. And, unlike Netflix, they a.) have meaningful ecosystems to extend and b.) the cash and core revenue lines to support the venture.

For months, I have pummeled Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for bungling the obvious job of leveraging the wildly successful Xbox to take control of the living room.


It's not just gamers who own Xbox. Households comprised of individuals do. Families. It's Ballmer's fault for not branding Xbox as the all-in-one solution for living room and even whole-home entertainment for gaming, media consumption and an endless list of who knows what else. Blame Ballmer, not the consumer market, for pigeon-holing Xbox as nothing but a gamer's toy.

If Microsoft should buy anything to give Xbox and its living room ambitions a kick in the rear, it should buy an excellent and far less expensive company called Roku. Roku represents the future from a strategic standpoint a whole heck of a lot more than Netflix does -- Reed Hastings' best attempts at spin aside.

I argue that Apple will do an actual television set and Intel a cable-set top box that looks more like Roku.

Why?

Back to one of the core theses: The content business sucks and there's no reason to be in it, at least not to the level and in the way Netflix is.

Microsoft should buy Roku and extend the company's emergence as the source for each and every TV Everywhere and a la carte entertainment offering under the sun. It would also pick up a key piece of technology, Roku's solution for Smart TVs, the Streaming Stick. That's the way you take control of the living room. Own it by being the one-stop shop for all streaming platforms, not some third-party reseller of the old guard media's scraps and hopeless original programming.


Roku recently added Time Warner Cable's TV Everywhere offering as an option. It's open to TWC subscribers and effectively accommodates television sets in a household that do not have a cable box connected.

Roku certainly plans to add more of these TV Everywhere services. That's where the content is -- from the hands of the companies that own it, delivered to subscribers via the old guard's own platforms. If there's a model Microsoft could blow open, this is the one. I bet that's at least part of what Intel is working on.

Buy Roku. Integrate its existing relationships into Xbox. Nurture more. Find ways to open HBO GO and other TV Everywhere platforms up to non-subscribers. Negotiate with the content owners as to how to package all of these moving parts. Do not enter the thankless game of getting fleeced to buy content.

Apple will do hardware. A smart television. Because that's what it does well. Apple creates awesome user experiences via beautiful hardware.

Intel will do a set-top box, but I am willing to bet the relationships it's forging today with content providers are not the same types of relationships Netflix has and continues to sign. Those deals are bad deals.

Microsoft belongs in the game. It can do well in the game, even amid stiff competition that may or may not look the way I vision it. It just shouldn't get in the game by buying Netflix. It should look to take Roku out instead and build out its own living room dream as opposed to bailing out Reed Hastings so he can realize his.

Like Cramer said Wednesday night on "Mad Money", this is all "hypothetical." If nothing else, it gets the wheels turning and generates worthy debate and discussion.

--Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

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