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Originally published September 29, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified September 30, 2011 at 1:14 PM

IBM tops Microsoft to become second-most valuable tech stock

IBM's market value rose to $214 billion Thursday, while Microsoft's fell to $213.2 billion, the first time IBM has exceeded its software rival based on closing prices since 1996, according to Bloomberg data.

Bloomberg News

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IBM passed Microsoft on Thursday to become the world's second-most valuable technology company, a reflection of industry changes, including the shift away from the personal computer.

IBM's market value rose to $214 billion Thursday, while Microsoft's fell to $213.2 billion, the first time IBM has exceeded its software rival based on closing prices since 1996, according to Bloomberg data.

It is now the fourth-largest company by market value and, in technology, trails only Apple, the world's most valuable company.

Chief Executive Sam Palmisano sold IBM's PC business six years ago to focus on corporate software and services.

Though Microsoft has expanded into online advertising and games, it gets most of its revenue and earnings from the Windows and Office software, used primarily on PCs.

"IBM went beyond technology," said Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research. "They were early to recognize that computing was moving way beyond these boxes on our desks."

IBM, based in Armonk, N.Y., has seen its stock gain 22 percent this year, while Redmond-based Microsoft's shares have dropped 8.8 percent.

Apple, which long competed against IBM and Microsoft in the PC business, passed Microsoft in market value last year, on rising sales of iPhones, iPods and iPads. Apple's market capitalization is now $362.1 billion.

Palmisano, who is also IBM's chairman, has spent his nine years at the helm sharpening the company's focus on software and services for corporations and government.

Once known as the world's largest computer company, IBM in 2005 sold its PC unit to China'as Lenovo Group, calling it "commoditized." The company has spent more than $25 billion investing in its software, computer-services and consulting businesses.

The maneuvers have helped increase per-share profit for more than 30 straight quarters. Palmisano has boosted sales by 20 percent from 2001 through last year, while keeping the costs of the 426,000-employee company little changed.

IBM pulled in more than half of its $99.9 billion in revenue last year from services and is now the world's largest computer-services provider.

It is betting it can add $20 billion more to revenue through 2015. Palmisano is investing in emerging markets and analytics, as well as in cloud computing and an initiative called Smarter Planet to link roads, electrical systems and other infrastructure to the Internet.

IBM plans to almost double operating earnings to at least $20 a share in 2015. Investors have taken notice: Shares have climbed 35 percent since the company first announced the goal in May 2010.

Microsoft, the world's largest software company, was worth three times as much as IBM in January 2000 and hit a market capitalization of more than $430 billion in July 2000, according to Bloomberg data.

Microsoft's value fell to about $135 billion in March 2009 during the economic downturn, before recovering with the market.

The company, which had $69.9 billion in revenue for the fiscal year ended June 30, got about 60 percent of its sales from the Windows and Office units in the most recent quarter.

"They were trapped in the classic innovator's dilemma" because their software business was so good, said Schadler. "The bet that Microsoft made in the PC business was to double down and double down and double down."

CEO Steve Ballmer said investors may not appreciate the company's progress in other businesses, including server software and online versions of Office, given the higher profile of its consumer businesses.

"People are saying, 'Where do you go next?' " said Ballmer at Microsoft's annual meeting in November. There probably isn't "as much appreciation for the incredible growth and success we've had with enterprises since people relate better to the consumer market. But it's great products with great earnings and particularly in some high-visibility categories," Ballmer said.

The server software and Office divisions boosted sales last quarter, as did the entertainment division, which includes Xbox. Revenue at the online-services division, including the Bing search engine, climbed to $662 million, while its operating loss widened to $728 million.

Microsoft also cut a deal with Nokia this year to make its Windows Phone the primary operating system for Nokia smartphones. The deal is designed to help both companies compete against Apple and Google's Android operating system.

Still, mobile computing is unlikely to ever be as profitable for Microsoft as the PC business, said Schadler.

"They're never going to win in that business the way they did in the PC business," he said.

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