ITEM 1A. RISK FACTORS
Our operations and financial results are subject to various risks and uncertainties, including those described below, that could adversely affect our business, financial condition, results of operations, cash flows, and the trading price of our common stock.
Challenges to our business model may reduce our revenues and operating margins. Our business model has been based upon customers paying a fee to license software that we develop and distribute. Under this license-based software model, software developers bear the costs of converting original ideas into software products through investments in research and development, offsetting these costs with the revenue received from the distribution of their products. Certain "open source" software business models challenge our license-based software model. Open source commonly refers to software whose source code is subject to a license allowing it to be modified, combined with other software and redistributed, subject to restrictions set forth in the license. A number of commercial firms compete with us using an open source business model by modifying and then distributing open source software to end users at nominal cost and earning revenue on complementary services and products. These firms do not bear the full costs of research and development for the software. In some cases, their products may infringe patents granted to Microsoft for our inventions. In addition, some of these products may build on Microsoft ideas that we provide to them free or at low royalties in connection with our interoperability initiatives. To the extent open source software gains increasing market acceptance, our sales, revenue, and operating margins may decline.
Another development is the business model under which companies provide software and content over the Internet in exchange for revenues primarily from advertising or subscriptions. An example of an advertising-funded business model is Internet search, where providing a robust alternative is particularly important and challenging due to the scale effects enjoyed by a single market dominant competitor. Advances in computing and communications technologies have made this model viable and enabled the rapid growth of some of our competitors. We are devoting significant resources to develop our own competing software plus services strategies. For users, this includes improvements to our Windows Live service and creation of online companion applications to certain Microsoft Office products. For developers, this includes our recent commercial release of the Windows Azure Platform, our hosted computing platform that is designed to facilitate rapid, flexible and scalable development of cloud-based services. It is uncertain whether these strategies will be successful.
An important element of our business model has been to create platform-based ecosystems on which many participants can build diverse solutions. A competing vertically-integrated model, in which a single firm controls both the software and hardware elements of a product has been successful with certain consumer products such as personal computers, mobile phones, and digital music players. We also offer vertically-integrated hardware and software products; however, efforts to compete with the vertically integrated model may increase our cost of sales and reduce our operating margins.
We face intense competition. We continue to experience intense competition across all markets for our products and services. Our competitors range in size from Fortune 100 companies to small, specialized single-product businesses and open source community-based projects. Although we believe the breadth of our businesses and product portfolio is a competitive advantage, our competitors that are focused on narrower product lines may be more effective in devoting technical, marketing, and financial resources to compete with us. In addition, barriers to entry in our businesses generally are low and products, once developed, can be distributed broadly and quickly at relatively low cost. Open source software vendors are devoting considerable efforts to developing software that mimics the features and functionality of our products, in some cases in violation of our intellectual property rights or on the basis of technical specifications for Microsoft technologies that we make available at little or no cost. In response to competition, we are developing versions of our products with basic functionality that are sold at lower prices than the standard versions. These competitive pressures may result in decreased sales volumes, price reductions, and/or increased operating costs, such as for marketing and sales incentives, resulting in lower revenue, gross margins, and operating income.
We may not be able to adequately protect our intellectual property rights. Protecting our global intellectual property rights and combating unlicensed copying and use of software and other intellectual property is difficult. While piracy adversely affects U.S. revenue, the impact on revenue from outside the U.S. is more significant, particularly in countries where laws are less protective of intellectual property rights. Similarly, the absence of harmonized patent laws makes it more difficult to ensure consistent respect for patent rights. Throughout the world, we actively educate consumers about the benefits of licensing genuine products and obtaining indemnification benefits for intellectual property risks, and we educate lawmakers about the advantages of a business climate where intellectual property rights are protected. However, continued educational and enforcement efforts may fail to enhance revenue. Reductions in the legal protection for software intellectual property rights could adversely affect revenue.
Third parties may claim we infringe their intellectual property rights. From time to time we receive notices from others claiming we infringe their intellectual property rights. The number of these claims may grow. To resolve these claims we may enter into royalty and licensing agreements on less favorable terms, stop selling or redesign affected products, or pay damages to satisfy indemnification commitments with our customers. Such agreements may cause operating margins to decline. We have made and expect to continue making significant expenditures to settle claims related to the use of technology and intellectual property rights as part of our strategy to manage this risk.
We may not be able to protect our source code from copying if there is an unauthorized disclosure of source code. Source code, the detailed program commands for our operating systems and other software programs, is critical to our business. Although we license portions of our application and operating system source code to a number of licensees, we take significant measures to protect the secrecy of large portions of our source code. If an unauthorized disclosure of a significant portion of our source code occurs, we could potentially lose future trade secret protection for that source code. This could make it easier for third parties to compete with our products by copying functionality, which could adversely affect our revenue and operating margins. Unauthorized disclosure of source code also could increase the security risks described in the next paragraph.
Security vulnerabilities in our products could lead to reduced revenues or to liability claims. Maintaining the security of computers and computer networks is a critical issue for us and our customers. Hackers develop and deploy viruses, worms, and other malicious software programs that attack our products. Although this is an industry-wide problem that affects computers across all platforms, it affects our products in particular because hackers tend to focus their efforts on the most popular operating systems and programs and we expect them to continue to do so. We devote significant resources to address security vulnerabilities through:
• engineering more secure products;
• enhancing security and reliability features in our products;
• helping our customers make the best use of our products and services to protect against computer viruses and other attacks;
• improving the deployment of software updates to address security vulnerabilities;
• investing in mitigation technologies that help to secure customers from attacks even when such software updates are not deployed; and
• providing customers online automated security tools, published security guidance, and security software such as firewalls and anti-virus software.
The cost of these steps could reduce our operating margins. Despite these efforts, actual or perceived security vulnerabilities in our products could lead some customers to seek to return products, to reduce or delay future purchases, or to use competing products. Customers may also increase their expenditures on protecting their existing computer systems from attack, which could delay adoption of new technologies. Any of these actions by customers could adversely affect our revenue. In addition, actual or perceived vulnerabilities may lead to claims against us. Although our license agreements typically contain provisions that eliminate or limit our exposure to such liability, there is no assurance these provisions will withstand all legal challenges.
We are subject to government litigation and regulatory activity that affects how we design and market our products. As a leading global software maker, we receive close scrutiny from government agencies under U.S. and foreign competition laws. Some jurisdictions also provide private rights of action for competitors or consumers to assert claims of anti-competitive conduct. For example, we have been involved in the following actions.
Lawsuits brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, 18 states, and the District of Columbia in two separate actions were resolved through a Consent Decree that took effect in 2001 and a Final Judgment entered in 2002. These proceedings imposed various constraints on our Windows operating system businesses. These constraints include limits on certain contracting practices, mandated disclosure of certain software program interfaces and protocols, and rights for computer manufacturers to limit the visibility of certain Windows features in new PCs. We believe we are in full compliance with these rules. However, if we fail to comply with them, additional restrictions could be imposed on us that would adversely affect our business.
The European Commission closely scrutinizes the design of high-volume Microsoft products and the terms on which we make certain technologies used in these products, such as file formats, programming interfaces, and protocols, available to other companies. In 2004, the Commission ordered us to create new versions of Windows that do not include certain multimedia technologies and to provide our competitors with specifications for how to implement certain proprietary Windows communications protocols in their own products. In 2009, the Commission accepted a set of commitments offered by Microsoft to address the Commission's concerns relating to competition in Web browsing software. The Commission's impact on product design may limit our ability to innovate in Windows or other products in the future, diminish the developer appeal of the Windows platform, and increase our product development costs. The availability of licenses related to protocols and file formats may enable competitors to develop software products that better mimic the functionality of our own products which could result in decreased sales of our products.
Government regulatory actions and court decisions such as these may hinder our ability to provide the benefits of our software to consumers and businesses, thereby reducing the attractiveness of our products and the revenues that come from them. New actions could be initiated at any time, either by these or other governments or private claimants, including with respect to new versions of Windows or other Microsoft products. The outcome of such actions, or steps taken to avoid them, could adversely affect us in a variety of ways, including:
• We may have to choose between withdrawing products from certain geographies to avoid fines or designing and developing alternative versions of those products to comply with government rulings, which may entail a delay in a product release and removing functionality that customers want or on which developers rely.
• We may be required to make available licenses to our proprietary technologies on terms that do not reflect their fair market value or do not protect our associated intellectual property.
• The rulings described above may be cited as a precedent in other competition law proceedings.
Our software and services online offerings are subject to government regulation of the Internet domestically and internationally in many areas, including user privacy, telecommunications, data protection, and online content. The application of these laws and regulations to our business is often unclear and sometimes may conflict. Compliance with these regulations may involve significant costs or require changes in business practices that result in reduced revenue. Noncompliance could result in penalties being imposed on us or orders that we stop the alleged noncompliant activity.
Our business depends on our ability to attract and retain talented employees. Our business is based on successfully attracting and retaining talented employees. The market for highly skilled workers and leaders in our industry is extremely competitive. We are limited in our ability to recruit internationally by restrictive domestic immigration laws. If we are less successful in our recruiting efforts, or if we are unable to retain key employees, our ability to develop and deliver successful products and services may be adversely affected. Effective succession planning is also important to our long-term success. Failure to ensure effective transfer of knowledge and smooth transitions involving key employees could hinder our strategic planning and execution.
Delays in product development schedules may adversely affect our revenues. The development of software products is a complex and time-consuming process. New products and enhancements to existing products can require long development and testing periods. Our increasing focus on software plus services also presents new and complex development issues. Significant delays in new product or service releases or significant problems in creating new products or services could adversely affect our revenue.
We make significant investments in new products and services that may not be profitable. Our growth depends on our ability to innovate by offering new, and adding value to our existing, software and service offerings. We will continue to make significant investments in research, development, and marketing for new products, services, and technologies, including the Windows PC operating system, the Microsoft Office system, Xbox 360, Live Search, Windows Server, Zune, Windows Live, the Windows Azure Services platform, and other software plus services offerings. Investments in new technology are speculative. Commercial success depends on many factors, including innovativeness, developer support, and effective distribution and marketing. If customers do not perceive our latest offerings as providing significant new functionality or other value, they may reduce their purchases of new software products or upgrades, unfavorably impacting revenue. We may not achieve significant revenue from new product and service investments for a number of years, if at all. Moreover, new products and services may not be profitable, and even if they are profitable, operating margins for new products and businesses may not be as high as the margins we have experienced historically.
Adverse economic conditions may harm our business. Unfavorable changes in economic conditions, including inflation, recession, or other changes in economic conditions, may result in lower information technology spending and adversely affect our revenue. If demand for PCs, servers, and other computing devices declines, or consumer or business spending for those products declines, our revenue will be adversely affected. Our product distribution system also relies on an extensive partner network. The impact of economic conditions on our partners, such as the bankruptcy of a major distributor, could result in sales channel disruption. Challenging economic conditions also may impair the ability of our customers to pay for products and services they have purchased. As a result, reserves for doubtful accounts and write-offs of accounts receivable may increase. We maintain an investment portfolio of various holdings, types, and maturities. These investments are subject to general credit, liquidity, market, and interest rate risks, which may be exacerbated by unusual events that have affected global financial markets. If global credit and equity markets experience prolonged periods of decline, our investment portfolio may be adversely impacted and we could determine that more of our investments have experienced an other-than-temporary decline in fair value, requiring impairment charges that could adversely impact our financial results.
We have claims and lawsuits against us that may result in adverse outcomes. We are subject to a variety of claims and lawsuits. Adverse outcomes in some or all of these claims may result in significant monetary damages or injunctive relief that could adversely affect our ability to conduct our business. Although management currently believes resolving all of these matters, individually or in the aggregate, will not have a material adverse impact on our financial statements, the litigation and other claims are subject to inherent uncertainties and management's view of these matters may change in the future. A material adverse impact on our financial statements also could occur for the period in which the effect of an unfavorable final outcome becomes probable and reasonably estimable.
We may have additional tax liabilities. We are subject to income taxes in the United States and many foreign jurisdictions. Significant judgment is required in determining our worldwide provision for income taxes. In the ordinary course of our business, there are many transactions and calculations where the ultimate tax determination is uncertain. We regularly are under audit by tax authorities. Although we believe our tax estimates are reasonable, the final determination of tax audits and any related litigation could be materially different from our historical income tax provisions and accruals. The results of an audit or litigation could have a material effect on our financial statements in the period or periods for which that determination is made. In addition, there have been proposals to reform U.S. tax laws that would significantly impact how U.S. multinational corporations are taxed on foreign earnings. We earn a substantial portion of our income in foreign countries. Although we cannot predict whether or in what form this proposed legislation will pass, if enacted it could have a material adverse impact on our tax expense and cash flow.
Our vertically-integrated hardware and software products may experience quality or supply problems. Our hardware products such as the Xbox 360 console are highly complex and can have defects in design, manufacture, or associated software. We could incur significant expenses, lost revenue, and reputational harm if we fail to detect or effectively address such issues through design, testing, or warranty repairs. We obtain some components of our hardware devices from sole suppliers. If a component delivery from a sole-source supplier is delayed or becomes unavailable or industry shortages occur, we may be unable to obtain timely replacement supplies, resulting in reduced sales. Either component shortages or excess or obsolete inventory may require us to record charges to cost of revenue. Xbox 360 consoles are assembled in Asia; disruptions in the supply chain may result in console shortages that would affect our revenues and operating margins. These same risks would apply to any other vertically-integrated hardware and software products we may offer.
If our goodwill or amortizable intangible assets become impaired we may be required to record a significant charge to earnings. Under generally accepted accounting principles, we review our amortizable intangible assets for impairment when events or changes in circumstances indicate the carrying value may not be recoverable. Goodwill is tested for impairment at least annually. Factors that may be considered a change in circumstances, indicating that the carrying value of our goodwill or amortizable intangible assets may not be recoverable, include a decline in stock price and market capitalization, reduced future cash flow estimates, and slower growth rates in our industry. We may be required to record a significant charge in our financial statements during the period in which any impairment of our goodwill or amortizable intangible assets is determined, negatively impacting our results of operations.
We operate a global business that exposes us to additional risks. We operate in over 100 countries and a significant part of our revenue comes from international sales. Pressure to make our pricing structure uniform might require that we reduce the sales price of our software in the United States and other countries. Operations outside the United States may be affected by changes in trade protection laws, policies and measures, and other regulatory requirements affecting trade and investment, including the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and local laws prohibiting corrupt payments. Emerging markets are a significant focus of our international growth strategy. The developing nature of these markets presents a number of risks. Deterioration of social, political, labor, or economic conditions in a specific country or region and difficulties in staffing and managing foreign operations may also adversely affect our operations or financial results. Although we hedge a portion of our international currency exposure, significant fluctuations in exchange rates between the U.S. dollar and foreign currencies may adversely affect our net revenues.
Catastrophic events or geo-political conditions may disrupt our business. A disruption or failure of our systems or operations in the event of a major earthquake, weather event, cyber-attack, terrorist attack, or other catastrophic event could cause delays in completing sales, providing services, or performing other mission-critical functions. Our corporate headquarters, a significant portion of our research and development activities, and certain other critical business operations are located in the Seattle, Washington area, and we have other business operations in the Silicon Valley area of California, both of which are near major earthquake faults. A catastrophic event that results in the destruction or disruption of any of our critical business or information technology systems could harm our ability to conduct normal business operations and our operating results. Abrupt political change, terrorist activity, and armed conflict pose a risk of general economic disruption in affected countries, which may increase our operating costs. These conditions also may add uncertainty to the timing and budget for technology investment decisions by our customers. The long-term effects of climate change on the global economy in general or the information technology industry in particular are unclear. Environmental regulations or changes in the supply, demand or available sources of energy may affect the availability or cost of goods and services, including natural resources, necessary to run our business. Changes in weather where we operate may increase the costs of powering and cooling computer hardware we use to develop software and provide cloud-based services. New regulations may require us to find alternative compliant and cost-effective methods of distributing our products and services.
Acquisitions and joint ventures may have an adverse effect on our business. We expect to continue making acquisitions or entering into joint ventures as part of our long-term business strategy. These transactions involve significant challenges and risks including that the transaction does not advance our business strategy, that we don't realize a satisfactory return on our investment, or that we experience difficulty in the integration of new employees, business systems, and technology, or diversion of management's attention from our other businesses. These events could harm our operating results or financial condition.
Improper disclosure of personal data could result in liability and harm our reputation. We store and process large amounts of personally identifiable information. It is possible that our security controls over personal data, our training of employees and vendors on data security, and other practices we follow may not prevent the improper disclosure of personally identifiable information. Improper disclosure of this information could harm our reputation, lead to legal exposure to customers, or subject us to liability under laws that protect personal data, resulting in increased costs or loss of revenue. Our software products and services also enable our customers to store and process personal data. Perceptions that our products or services do not adequately protect the privacy of personal information could inhibit sales of our products or services.
We may experience outages, data loss and disruptions of our online services if we fail to maintain an adequate operations infrastructure. Our increasing user traffic and complexity of our products and services demand more computing power. We have spent and expect to continue to spend substantial amounts to purchase or lease data centers and equipment and to upgrade our technology and network infrastructure to handle increased traffic on our Web sites and to introduce new products and services and support existing services such as Exchange Online, Sharepoint Online, Xbox LIVE, Windows Live, and Office Live. We also are growing our business of providing a platform and back-end hosting for services provided by third-party businesses to their end customers. Maintaining and expanding this infrastructure is expensive and complex. Inefficiencies or operational failures, including temporary or permanent loss of customer data, could diminish the quality of our products, services, and user experience resulting in contractual liability, claims by customers and other third parties, damage to our reputation and loss of current and potential users, subscribers, and advertisers, each of which may harm our operating results and financial condition.