今年对微软公司（Microsoft）来说是重拳出击之年。公司计划推出Windows 8，这是微软操作系统的彻底升级版。今年晚些时候，微软还会推出自己打造的平板电脑，与iPad一较高下。全新版的Office套件也即将全线出击。从近期的情况来看，微软公司可谓顺风顺水，形势喜人。截至今年6月30日的微软上一财年中，其商用部门（Business Division）的营业收入占总营收一半还多，为157亿美元。同期，Windows和Windows Live这两款产品带来了115亿美元的收入。去年全年，微软的利润达到了170亿美元。从今年年初以来，长期以来萎靡不振的微软股价也上涨了13%。
但是，微软仍然面临重重问题。微软在规模巨大的在线广告业中所占的份额依然微不足道。而在对未来至关重要的云行业中，群雄逐鹿之势正愈演愈烈。企业办公应用套件（Apps for Business）是谷歌公司（Google）基于云而推出的应用程序，旨在提高办公效率。目前有三分之一的企业都采用了它，而不是微软的产品Office 365。最近，市场研究公司Global Equities Research的分析师特里普•乔杜里对《华尔街日报》（The Wall Street Journal ）表示：在极为关键的移动领域，微软可谓无声无息。他说：“只有不到2%的智能手机采用了Windows系统，搭载Windows的平板电脑几乎没有。客户接受度很低，这可不是个小问题。”
不过，微软内部有一位尖兵正蓄势待发，它就是Xbox 360。微软的娱乐和设备部门（Entertainment and Devices Division）的收入约为商用部门的40%。鉴于Xbox 360是微软如今业务版图上很小的一块，一般人可能会认为它不会有多重要。而实际上，Xbox 360已经悄无声息地成为游戏终端业里统御天下的力量，地位如日中天。
上个月微软宣布，6月份它在美国市场售出了257,000台Xbox 360，占据美国游戏机市场47%的份额。Xbox 360的销售已连续18个月领先各大品牌，并连续16个月占据超过40%的市场份额。微软称，消费者6月份在Xbox 360上的花销达到2.72亿美元。对一台大概7年前就已经推出的产品来说，这个成绩单实在可圈可点。上个月，在一份致投资者的信中，摩根大通银行（J.P. Morgan）的分析师约翰•迪福奇写道：“尽管Xbox的财务表现对微软而言仍显得无足轻重，但它的业务持续表现出可观的销量，较高的软件搭售率，以及强劲的收入增长。由于这一业务在投资者心目中的高调形象，相关新闻报道可能起到催化剂的作用。”
不过Xbox 360对微软的重要性绝不仅限于游戏终端的销售而已。Xbox 360正走向产品生命周期的尽头，在此期间，年同比销量下降了35%。然而，在第四财季中，相关软件和服务则推动娱乐部门的收入增长了12%。
对微软来说足够幸运的是，它似乎能从这些软件和服务的销售中获得持续增长。Xbox 360的游戏库极为庞大，同时微软还对Xbox Live加倍投入，将这款广受欢迎的游戏终端变为人们客厅里的媒体中心，供用户观看流媒体视频，下载视频游戏。
这对微软而言将是个绝好的机会。2010年曾有预测称，Xbox Live的收入将达到10亿美元左右。自此之后，微软早已经售出了比这一预测多得多的游戏终端。而据市场研究公司Kantar Worldpanel称，微软游戏终端11%的用户——约700万人——通过Xbox Live购买产品。据微软称，去年Xbox Live的会员总数增长了15%。在未来几年间，这一增长很可能将势头不减。
微软首席财务官彼得•克莱恩在4月举行的业绩发布电话会议（earnings call）上发表讲话称：“Xbox Live及所有与之相伴的娱乐内容”都被微软总部视为“长期可持续的收入来源，无论是从订阅用户的角度看，还是从促进交易的角度看都是如此。”此外，他还补充说：“看看订阅用户的参与程度就会发现，相比较游戏时间，他们用于娱乐的时间一直在增长。因此我认为，Xbox Live所采用的战略和价值主张在未来数年中依然会表现得很出色。”
This is a big year for Microsoft. The company plans to launch Windows 8, a complete overhaul of its signature operating system, later this year as well as its own, home-grown tablet competitor to the iPad. A new version of Office is also in the works.
Lately, things have been pretty good in Redmond. During Microsoft's (MSFT) last fiscal year, ended June 30, its Business Division accounted for over half of its operating income, generating $15.7 billion. Windows and Windows Live, meanwhile, came in at $11.5 billion. The company generated a $17 billion profit during its last fiscal year. Microsoft's long-languishing stock price is up 13% since the beginning of the year.
Still, Microsoft has plenty of issues. It has a small presence in the massive online advertising industry, and the cloud, which is vastly important to its future, is up for grabs. One in three companies is adopting Google (GOOG) Apps for Business, the search giant's cloud-based office-productivity suite, rather than Microsoft's alternative, Office 365. And as Global Equities Research analyst Trip Chowdhry told The Wall Street Journal recently, Microsoft's presence in the crucial mobile space is practically non-existent. "Less than 2% of smartphones are Windows devices and no tablets are Windows devices yet, which is troubling from a customer adoption perspective," he said.
There is a white knight inside Microsoft: the Xbox 360. Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices Division generates about 40% of the revenue of the Business Division. Considering the Xbox 360 is such a small part of Microsoft's operation today, you might think it can't possibly be so important. However, the Xbox 360 has quietly become a dominant force in the console business, making it awfully important.
Microsoft announced last month that it sold 257,000 Xbox 360 units in the U.S. in June, earning it 47% share of the U.S. console market. The console led the way in total sales for the 18th month in a row, and held over 40% share for the 16th-consecutive month. Microsoft said that total consumer spending on the Xbox 360 in June hit $272 million. Not bad for a device that launched nearly seven years ago.
"The company's Xbox business continues to show solid unit volume, attach rate, and revenue growth performance, though the financial impact to Microsoft remains inconsequential," J.P. Morgan analyst John DiFucci wrote in a note to investors last month. "However, the high-profile of this business in investors' minds may create catalysts from news events from this business line."
But the Xbox 360's importance to Microsoft goes beyond console sales. The Xbox 360 is coming to the end of its life cycle, and year-over-year unit sales were down 35% during the period. Software and services, however, drove the entire entertainment division to a 12% revenue gain in the fourth quarter.
Luckily for Microsoft, it appears poised to continue to derive its growth from those software and services. The console's game library is extremely deep and Microsoft has doubled down on Xbox Live, turning its popular console into a viable living room media hub for those looking to stream video and download video games.
Market researcher DFC Intelligence revealed in a study recently that by 2017, 39% of all console game revenue will come byway of Internet-delivered distribution platforms and other Web-based sources. DFC believes that the gaming business will see revenue soar from $67 billion this year to $82 billion in 2017. In other words, nearly $32 billion will go to the console space's Web-based services that year.
That's a major opportunity for Microsoft. Back in 2010, it was estimated that Xbox Live generated about $1 billion in revenue. Since then, Microsoft has sold boatloads more consoles and according to Kantar Worldpanel, 11% of the company's console owners, or about 7 million, have made purchases through Xbox Live. Xbox Live membership was up 15% in the last fiscal year, according to Microsoft. That growth is more than likely to continue in the coming years.
And Microsoft is getting ready to cash in.
Speaking during his company's earnings call in April, Microsoft CFO Peter Klein said that "Xbox Live and all the entertainment content that comes with that" is viewed by Redmond "as a persistent long-term revenue stream, both from a subscriber perspective as well as a transactional perspective. "If you look at the engagement that our subscribers have, the amount of time they spend doing entertainment as opposed to gaming is increasing all the time," Klein continued. "And so I think the strategy and the value proposition there plays out very well over the next several years."
The Xbox and its associated services have a long way to go to match Windows or Office in overall revenue, but the world is moving towards an all-digital entertainment model. Turns out Microsoft knows it -- and it's quietly capitalizing.