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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Cloud switch paying off for Microsoft

US tech giant posts profits ahead of analysts' expectations

Microsoft's fourth-quarter revenues show that the company's transition to cloud computing is paying off. Mike Blake/Reuters
Microsoft's fourth-quarter revenues show that the company's transition to cloud computing is paying off. Mike Blake/Reuters

Microsoft’s turnaround plan got back on track in the latest quarter, buoyed by rising sales of internet-based software and services.

Profit in the fiscal fourth quarter exceeded analysts’ estimates and adjusted sales rose 9 per cent as demand almost doubled for Azure cloud services, which let companies store and run their applications in Microsoft data centres. A tax-rate benefit added 23 cents a share to earnings, Microsoft said.

Shareholders are watching closely to gauge whether Satya Nadella is making progress toward reshaping 42-year-old Microsoft as a cloud-computing powerhouse with new services related to Azure and the Office 365 online productivity apps - a shift that led to a massive sales-force restructuring earlier this month. The stock has surged 33 per cent in the past year to a record amid signs that the changes are taking root, and the company rewarded that optimism by posting a significant gain in

revenue from commercial cloud products along with wider margins for the business.

"They are a company that seems to be ahead of some of these old-line technology companies that are making transitions to the cloud," said Dan Morgan, a senior portfolio manager at Synovus Trust, which owns Microsoft shares. "The story is still intact but they still have a ways to go."

Profit excluding certain items in the quarter ended June 30 was 98 cents a share, including the 23-cent tax benefit, Microsoft said on Thursday in a statement. Excluding that boost, profit would have been 75 cents, still higher than the 71-cent average projection of analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. Revenue

climbed to $24.7 billion, compared with estimates for $24.3 billion.

Microsoft shares rose as much as 4.1 percent in extended trading following the report, then later pared gains to trade near their price at the close in New York, which was $74.22. The stock has jumped 19 percent in 2017, compared with a 10 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

The company, which cut thousands of sales and marketing jobs earlier this month to concentrate on selling cloud and newer products like artificial-intelligence and data-analysis tools, said it recorded costs of $306 million for the restructuring in the fourth quarter.

Commercial cloud revenue was $18.9 billion on an annualised basis, moving closer to the $20 billion target the company set for the fiscal year that started July 1. Even as cloud sales rise, the company has been able to meet a pledge to trim costs, with commercial cloud gross margin widening to 52 percent.

"In commercial cloud gross margin, we committed a year ago to material improvement and this is 10 points higher than where we were last year," the company's chief financial officer, Amy Hood, said in an interview.

Azure sales rose 97 percent in the period, while commercial Office 365 -- cloud-based versions of Word, Excel and other productivity software -- increased 43 percent. Microsoft’s Azure cloud-computing service still lags behind market leader Amazon.com Inc., but more customers are starting to go with Microsoft, according to research from Credit Suisse Group AG.

Both corporate and consumer users are switching from older Office programs to the cloud subscriptions, providing more stable and recurring revenue.

"The underlying trends -- the shift to the cloud and also what it means for the legacy, on-premise stuff -- are likely to be in motion for a very long period of time," said Sid Parakh, a fund manager at Becker Capital Management, which owns Microsoft stock.

* Bloomberg