Lesson of the week: Don’t underestimate Dell and Microsoft

November 3, 2007, 12:24 AM UTC
Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system is selling better than investors expected – and customers are spending extra for the premium version. Image: Microsoft

Don’t look now: Dell and Microsoft investors had a pretty good week.

So what gives?

Maybe investors are remembering that while newcomer buzz is nice, these two old-school companies have the experience to make real headway in a growing global market for PCs and Internet-based communication. But though Wall Street may be warming up to Dell and Microsoft, these tech titans still might not be getting the respect they deserve.

Microsoft’s Zune: The sequel (Photos 1-4)

Take Dell. The company on Tuesday told investors the extent of its accounting troubles, and the news wasn’t so bad. The company reported that between 2003 and 2006, it overstated earnings by $92 million. That’s less than 1 percent of $12 billion in profits the company hauled in during the period. (A Securities and Exchange Commission probe isn’t finished, but it’s hard to imagine the feds coming down hard on Dell after it admitted the error of its ways.)

Investors responded by snapping up the shares,
a move I recommended last month in Fortune

Dell’s Vostro 1500 is part of its comeback strategy to recapture market share in small and medium-size businesses. Image: Dell

But Dell still has plenty of opportunity for growth. Today the stock is trading at about the level where it was five years ago, while Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has risen more than 200 percent and Apple (AAPL) more than 1,500 percent. Of course, that alone isn’t cause for excitement; but it does suggest that founder Michael Dell will have plenty of room to run if he can remake the company’s image into more of a trusted solutions provider than a ruthless cost-cutter. Analysts seem to agree. Since July, four firms have initiated coverage of Dell with buy recommendations.

The best-designed Bluetooth gear (Photos 1-8)

Then there’s Microsoft. When the software giant reported standout revenue and profits a week ago, the results took Wall Street by surprise – after all, its flagship product, Windows Vista, was supposed to be a flop. Not on the balance sheet it’s not. Windows sales were $4.14 billion in the most recent quarter, up from $3.32 billion a year earlier.

And the picture promises to get even brighter. The entire PC industry is reporting healthy growth in Europe and Asia, markets that some had guessed would never embrace PCs the way the U.S. has. Not only are customers in those markets buying computers, they’re grabbing higher-end machines. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and Microsoft both tell me that consumers in Germany, for example, are quite savvy about speeds and feeds when they shop for a new system. And Merrill Lynch estimates that in 2009, buyers in Western Europe will spend more on their machines than buyers in the U.S.

Those trends bode well for both Microsoft and Dell. For Microsoft, practically every PC sold is another Windows license, and another opportunity to sell programs and servers. And while Dell is the No. 1 PC seller in the U.S., it’s No. 2 globally — a decent position in an expanding market.