SIN Picks

Project Natal: Revolutionary Technology for an Industry in Distress?

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February 8, 2010 | SIN Picks | Author Asif

The video game industry is clearly in a slump. If the 8% drop in video game software sales in 2009 was not sufficient reason to convince most investors to stay away from the sector, the disappointing outlook from Electronic Arts (ERTS) today certainly will. Electronic Arts beat reduced earnings expectations of 31 cents by 2 cents when it reported results for last quarter. Despite the release of the highly anticipated game Mass Effect 2 in January, the company provided downright depressing guidance for the current quarter and the first quarter of its fiscal year 2011. Electronic Arts expects to make between just 2 to 6 cents in the current quarter (Q4 2010). Analysts were expecting the company to report earnings of 13 cents a share. The outlook for the first quarter of fiscal 2011 is a loss of 35 to 40 cents.

With the next game console cycle years away, investors in companies like our pick Activision Blizzard are left wondering if there is light at the end of this dark tunnel. Even though Activision has a strong pipeline of games for 2010, the general decline in the industry and the economy have been weighing the stock down ahead of earnings that come out on Wednesday. That light at the end of the tunnel could very well come in the form of a revolutionary technology called Project Natal, which has been discussed in great detail below by Jackie Judge, the newest addition to the team behind SINLetter.

An add-on peripheral for Microsoft’s XBox 360 console, Project Natal has been deemed revolutionary. A strong choice in words for anyone in the tech world, as we well know, and often premature. Take the Apple iPad’s recent launch – it, too, was touted as revolutionary, predicted to change the way we view tablets and computers, and yet Gizmodo and several other tech blogs regarded it simply as a larger, clunkier iPhone. Plenty of people, including myself, have more than a fleeting scorn over the choice in title. At least we can appreciate, right off the bat, the stunning name of XBox’s Project Natal. It oozes with demure mystery while retaining a futuristic glow – it’s a name that would feel right at home in the world of Avatar, even standing in, possibly, for the project of creating avatars. In a way, that’s exactly what it is. But, will it be revolutionary? It certainly has the capacity, but history has a funny way of providing some perspective, before we decide a technology’s future.

from youtube

When it comes to the battle between computer and console games, I always say I’m a computer gamer. Why? Maybe because I never made the full transition to console systems. It’s an interesting stance, because I am a surefire product of my generation, a generation whose virginal experience with gaming was with a console system: the original Nintendo (the NES), and its blister-inducing red buttons that made their way into the halls of gaming notoriety. But, once games started appearing on the PCs, with their big, new aura of technological superiority, and with their superior graphics and gameplay, consoles began falling on the wayside for many, especially considering how in the late 1980s, the market was saturated with poor-quality games, simply to meet demand.

The NES revived the dying console system, but by this time, home computers were becoming affordable and commonplace. In the ensuing decade, we would see an evolution in computer gaming: from SCUMM games to the 3D graphics of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom; to the beginnings of bump-mapping as seen in Citizen Kabuto; to scripted events as seen in Half-Life; and now, the world of the physics engine as we’ve witnessed since 2005, when the nVidia PhysX PPU was released. Such precedented leaps in technology in the 1990s and 2000s, along with what I could fairly surmise as a healthy economy during the Clinton Administration, continued the rampant success of the computer game genre. And, this is only with first person shooters. To put this in perspective the video game industry (including computer games) was a $7.98 billion industry in 2000. Despite the slump in the industry, video game sales generated $19.66 in revenue in 2009.

So, where were console systems during all this? The console system really made it big in the mid to late 1990s. Televisions, after all, were far bigger than computer screens, and controller pads became much more ergonomic – saying goodbye to blisters and hello to more efficient performance. After acclimating to using a controller, the keyboard and mouse can seem archaic, clunky, less intuitive by far, than something you can hold in the palm of your hand. Plenty of people look toward a game’s playability over its graphics, anyway, and with consoles being priced a good few hundred dollars cheaper than computers, consoles like the Sega Saturn, Sony Playstation and Nintendo 64 became incredibly popular in their heyday. However, it wasn’t until the Dreamcast, the Playstation 2, the Nintendo GameCube, and the XBox, that console systems started taking a cue from computer software, and started amping up their graphical capabilities. Sixth-generation console systems – in particular, the XBox – started rivaling the PC in terms of video quality.

Maybe that’s why at the brink of the millennium we saw a shift in the PC world toward simulation games (i.e. The Sims) and more strategy-based games (i.e. Starcraft, WoW) at the forefront of popularity. With consoles taking over with their highly playable, multiplayer games, it was almost as if the computer had to carve a name for itself someplace else, shift the paradigm, to remain appealing after reigning supreme on the graphics front for a long time. In the early 2000’s Electronic Arts had huge success with The Sims series, a series that has only recently begun to taper off in popularity. Why? Because the market is saturated, once again, this time with anything simulation.

The brilliant thing about the XBox is that it is the best of both worlds, a fusion, by Microsoft, of the PC platform and the console system. It has been immensely successful since its inception, especially with the help of its most popular games Halo and Halo 2. However, it didn’t break new ground like the Nintendo Wii did, which revolutionized console gaming by taking people off their couches and instead on their feet, in an interactive, gesture-based system. In a similar fashion, the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises were, and still are to a degree, monumental.

If the success of simulation games proves anything, it’s that people are craving games that mimic reality – virtual reality. Right now, it seems the gaming public wants one of two things: a reversion to retro gaming, after being inundated with all the dynamic lighting and physics engines in games like Half Life 2 and FallOut, or something completely new. Retro games always come and go in popularity – a natural ebb and flow of gaming waters – but to breach new territory, and really impress gamers, would require an advancement of simulation and physics engine games. Something bigger and badder. Here is where Project Natal comes in.

You could say that the XBox’s Project Natal is Microsoft’s way of usurping Nintendo’s throne. Sony, too, is trying to bank off the brilliance of the Nintendo Wii system. Rumors have been circulating of their arc controller, a controller that, most likely, will have gesture-reading capabilities like the Wii controller. Anyone could surmise that Microsoft would do the same, but if we know anything about this PC giant, it’s that they like to put things in overdrive, take things a step further. So, what do they do? Get rid of the controller. Project Natal is Microsoft’s foray into virtual reality, if I could use that term loosely, by creating a console system that relies on gestures, spoken commands, and presented objects or images sans the use of a controller. Thinking about this, I admit to feeling a static charge of excitement because, suddenly, anything seems possible. Ever since the birth of movies, and later, games, we’ve been trying to push the limits of pseudo reality – how can we make this experience more lifelike? How can we become a part of the game without these physical barriers of controller and screen, this distinct separation from projected reality and reality? Imagine the ability to interact with characters in a game by simply moving around, talking to them and even handing them objects. Despite companies like Mgestyk Technologies showcasing their futuristic gesture-based technologies, Microsoft’s XBox will be introducing the first widespread tool of the future, for mass, consumer consumption, in the immediately accessible package of a game. With this move, Microsoft is re-establishing itself as cutting edge, at the forefront of technology, and it is doing it with a game.

The true brilliance in Project Natal, though, isn’t just in its revolutionary gaming design or technologies we will be seeing, most likely, in more serious sectors in the next decade or two. The true brilliance lies in the timing with the reemergence of television as a technological frontier. TVs are making huge strides right now in being able to integrate as a computer system. Since people love their enormous flat screen TVs and computers, it makes sense to integrate them in one system, exactly like our iPhones. How does this tie in to Project Natal? Leaving behind the controller, we only have one more frontier to go before we reach, in a sense, a “full virtual reality” – add an immersive 3D environment. Soon, all our tv watching, movie downloading, movie renting, game playing, extracurricular activities, and work will be done via one system. Soon there will no longer be a disparity, a separation between consoles and computers – they’ll synergize into one complete entity. Just like the virtual reality that Microsoft can almost taste with Project Natal.

Whether Natal can invigorate this slumping industry remains to be seen but it certainly appears to be a powerful beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

To fully appreciate the potential of Project Natal, check out some of the videos in the gallery section of the Project Natal website here.

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Activision Blizzard: Playing Diablo’s Advocate

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January 25, 2010 | SIN Picks | Author Asif

There are two sides to every story and when it comes to investing in individual stocks, for every logical argument that one could provide for buying a stock, there may be an equally strong reason for avoiding it. My last article about gaming company Activision titled Ten Reasons I am Buying Activision Blizzard (ATVI), generated a healthy discussion on Seeking Alpha with 33 comments following the article and also resulted in a TV interview with a Canadian station called Business News Network.

While I briefly touched upon some of the risks of investing in Activision in my previous article, I did not get a chance to elaborate further and have for some time now wanted to write this post, playing devil’s advocate to my long case for Activision.

The Industry:

The original thesis for investing in Activision Blizzard was not just the potential of Blizzard’s pipeline of games and Activision’s strong franchises but also the notion that the video game industry is traditionally resilient in recessions by providing one of the cheapest forms of entertainment ($0.60/hour when compared to $2/hour for DVD rentals). However the Great Recession we just experienced was not kind to the video game industry. The industry saw sales decline by 8% in 2009 to $19.66 billion from $21.4 billion in 2008, which was incidentally a record year. Software sales fared even worse with an 11% year-over-year decline to $10.5 billion.

The troubled video game giant Electronic Arts (ERTS) not only lowered its forecast for the quarter ended December 31, 2009 but lowered its non-GAAP earnings forecast for its full fiscal year, which ends in March, down to $0.40 to $0.55 from an earlier forecast of $0.70 to $1.00. EA executives expect industry sales to be flat to down 5% in 2010. The interesting thing about this forecast is that Electronic Arts has some highly anticipated games coming out in the current quarter including Mass Effect 2, which is the top selling game for XBOX 360 on Amazon even before its release date of January 26, 2010. It is nice to see Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 in second place on the best seller list after spending 268 days in the top 100.

Despite EA’s gloomy outlook and the slump in the industry, we may still be on the money with Activision as the company reaffirmed its 2009 outlook when it reported results for the third quarter. This was before Call of Duty: Modern Warfare went on to register $1 billion in worldwide sales.

Current Games and Pipeline:

The worldwide success of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 foreshadowed some of the recent misses in the Activision lineup. The critically acclaimed DJ Hero did not live up to its expectations when it was released last quarter and neither did Tony Hawk Ride, which was panned by both critics and gamers alike. The $120 price tag for the game (now $99.99) probably did not help much either. Guitar Hero Van Halen, which was released right before Christmas hardly struck a cord with customers. Unless Activision signs up bands like U2, the Guitar Hero series appears to be running out of steam. The only title from Activision that looks interesting for 2010 is time travel sci-fi game called Singularity that reminds me of a few episodes from Lost: Season 5.

The good news is that the Blizzard division might pick up the slack in 2010 thanks to the highly anticipated release of Starcraft II and an expansion pack for World of Warcraft called Cataclysm. Starcraft II will be split into three parts (one game for each of the three races Terran, Zerg and Protoss) and hopefully at least the first part will ship in the first half of 2010. There is also the possibility of Diablo III in 2011 (or beyond), expansion packs for each of the three Starcraft II games and another Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) along the lines of World of Warcraft. Call of Duty or Diablo may translate well into a MMORPG.

Fourth Quarter Earnings:

Activision Blizzard is scheduled to report fourth quarter and full year 2009 on February 10th. Expectations for non-GAAP earnings in the fourth quarter are running very high with analysts expecting the company to report earnings of 41 cents per share on revenue of $2.23 billion. In contrast the company generated non-GAAP revenue of $2.34 billion in Q4 2008 but that was as a result of three big hits, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Call of Duty: World at War and World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, in a single quarter.

The recent success of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 may not be sufficient to help Activision meet or beat the street consensus for earnings this quarter. However the reason Activision Blizzard is the largest position in both the SINLetter Model Portfolio and my personal portfolio has little to do with the company making its numbers this quarter and more to do with buying an industry leader with a strong pipeline at an attractive valuation.

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Ten Reasons I am Buying Activision Blizzard (ATVI)

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November 18, 2009 | SIN Picks | Author Asif

In my previous blog post Taking Profits in Towerstream (TWER), I mentioned that I would reinvest half the proceeds from Towerstream into the gaming industry leader Activision Blizzard (ATVI), making the company not only the largest position in the SINLetter Model Portfolio but also the largest position in my personal (after tax) portfolio.

While I occasionally make some risky trades, for the most part I am a conservative long-term oriented investor with the stock portion of my portfolio spread out between 15 to 25 stocks. Excluding company stock, I tend to keep individual position sizes to no more than 5% of the overall portfolio. Research has demonstrated that the benefits of diversification diminish once you have over 30 stocks in your portfolio. However in the case of Activision Blizzard, I have started building a more concentrated position that I expect to pay off in the next two to three years.

This post is about the key reasons I personally believe Activision Blizzard appears to be an attractive investment and why it now accounts for 13% of the SINLetter model portfolio and 10% of my personal portfolio. My goal is to eventually build this position until it represents 20% of my personal portfolio. Since I have already covered the basics of why I like Activision Blizzard in the September 2008 investment newsletter, here are 10 reasons for making Activision Blizzard a core holding.

  1. Activision released the highly anticipated game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 last week and racked up $310 million in sales from the United States and United Kingdom over a 24 hour period. To put this in perspective the blockbuster Batman movie “Dark Knight” brought in $155 million during its opening weekend. With Christmas right around the corner, the final sales numbers for this edition of Call of Duty are going to be much bigger.
  2. World of Warcraft: Cataclysm for the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft (WOW) is expected to be released in 2010, bringing two new playable races to the 11.5 million active users who pay every month (or by the hour in China) to continue playing World of Warcraft.
  3. The Blizzard division of Activision that created WOW also has another potential blockbuster game called Starcraft 2 scheduled for release in the first half of 2010. More than a decade after the release of the original Starcraft game millions of people are still playing it on Blizzard’s online service called Battle.net. Starcraft 2 will be split into 3 games called “StarCraft II Terrans: Wings of Liberty”, “StarCraft II Zerg: Heart of the Swarm” and  “StarCraft II Protoss: Legacy of the Void”. Given that WOW: Wrath of Lich King sold 2.8 million copies in the first 24 hours after its release and went on to become the best selling game in PC history in 2008, sales of these three titles are probably going to be impressive as well.
  4. Activision’s line up of franchises like Guitar Hero and Call of Duty continue to perform well. According to Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick Guitar Hero was the year’s “#1 best-selling third-party franchise in North America and Europe” through September 2009.
  5. With the increase in mobile gaming both from regular devices like the Nintendo DS and smartphones like the iPhone, Activision gains additional distribution channels for its content. Shortly after the release of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the company release a pared down version of the  game for the iPhone called Call of Duty: World at War: ZOMBIES. I may consider posting a review of the game on my iPhone apps related website AppStruck.com
  6. Shifting gears beyond the product to what makes the stocks interesting, the company reported better than expected results when it reported third quarter results, gained 3.1% market share and ended the quarter with $2.7 billion in cash and investments and no debt.
  7. The company repurchased nearly a billion dollars of its own stock ($960 million to be precise) as of 9/30/09 out of a $1.25 billion share repurchase program.
  8. Activision reiterated its earnings target of 26 cents per share for full year 2009 on a GAAP basis. On a non-GAAP basis, earnings are expected to be 63 cents per share. The discrepancy between the two is primarily on account of deferred revenue related to online games like WOW. Activision has to spread out revenue from such games over the life of the subscription instead of when it actually makes the sale.
  9. Using the non-GAAP revenue number of $4.5 billion and earnings of $0.63, we get a forward P/E of 18.55 and P/S of 3.3. Backing out the $2.7 billion in cash and investments from the $14.83 billion market cap, I arrive at an enterprise value of $12.13 billion and an EV/Sales ratio of 2.7. I have no qualms about paying under three times annual sales for a company that expects to post (non-GAAP) operating margins of over 25% for full year 2009.
  10. A CEO who turned a $440,000 investment into the largest gaming company with a market cap approaching $15 billion over nearly two decades despite never having picked up a joystick.

Sure there are risks to buying Activision just like there are with any investment. My biggest worries are huge recent insider sales especially by Activision’s CEO Bobby Kotick, Blizzard’s notorious reputation for not shipping a game “until it is ready”, a recent drop in video game software sales, longer console refreshment cycles and a general market decline after a powerful rally from the March lows. But those are topics for future blog posts and having exhausted my supply of midnight oil, I am going to call it a night.

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Taking Profits in Towerstream (TWER)

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November 16, 2009 | SIN Picks | Author Asif

I am coming out of a nearly four month blogging hiatus to once again write about wireless broadband provider Towerstream (TWER) following a question I received from a long time subscriber who wanted to know my current thoughts about Towerstream. The company had released their third quarter results earlier this month and he wanted to know if I would add to my position or let it ride. After reviewing Towerstream’s results and reading a research report by Canaccord Adams issued on November 6 that reiterated a Buy rating on Towerstream with a $2 price target (20% above current levels) I would have normally been inclined to hold on to my position.

As I tweeted on November 4th, results were impressive with the company posting a 32% increase in revenue year-over-year and a small revenue increase on a sequential quarter basis despite challenging economic conditions. The company improved its gross margins to 75% when compared to the third quarter of 2008 and continued to inch closer towards achieving profitability. Even though eight out of the nine markets they operate in are EBITDA positive, it looks like it might be mid to late 2010 before the company becomes cash flow positive. Churn increased on a year-over-year basis to 1.71% but is down when compared to the previous quarter. Unfortunately ARPU (Average Revenue Per User) declined both for new and existing customers. While there is a lot to cheer about their recent results, as I mentioned in my previous blog entry titled Towerstream Catapults 40%, the catalyst that drives the stock higher from current levels will be the awarding of the grants that Towerstream has applied for under the government’s $7.2 billion broadband stimulus plan.

To get further insight into Towerstream’s applications, I mined the applications database on the “Broadband USA” website and found 17 grant applications by Towerstream ranging in size from $4.33 million (San Francisco) to $14.56 million (Houston, Texas). Given that Towerstream’s revenue last quarter was $3.78 million, receiving just a single grant could have a material impact on Towerstream’s results and profitability, despite the likelihood that the grant revenue may be spread out across multiple quarters.

While looking through Towerstream’s applications, I also noticed that all but four of the 17 applications had public notice responses from companies like Cox Communications and AT&T that claimed that the areas Towerstream was proposing to cover already had broadband access. The NTIA, one of the two government agencies responsible for awarding these grants, started awarding the grants on October 5th.

Should the NTIA and the Department of Agriculture reject Towerstream’s applications the stock may drift lower from current levels. Instead of waiting to see the outcome of the grant applications, I think it might be best to follow in the footsteps of Towerstream’s CEO Jeff Thompson who sold 40,000 shares last week and book profits. At an Enterprise Value/2009 Estimated Revenue ratio of 2.8, the stock appears to be fully valued at current levels if you take the broadband stimulus grants out of the equation. I am estimating $4 million in fourth quarter revenue to arrive at the 2.8 ratio. The stock is up 31% since our original purchase in July 2008 and up 141% since we added to our position back in the dark days of November 2008 when the company was trading below the cash on its balance sheet.

The closing price on November 16th will be used as the selling price for the position. I am going to invest half the proceeds from the transaction into Activision Blizzard (ATVI), making it the largest position in the SINLetter Model Portfolio. Given that my last update about Activision was in the portfolio performance section of the May 2009 investment newsletter, I will shortly post a blog entry detailing my reasons for making Activision not only the biggest position in the SINLetter portfolio but also my personal (after tax) portfolio.

Voluntary Disclosure: I currently own shares of Towerstream and Activision Blizzard in my personal portfolio. Following the publishing of this blog entry, I will sell Towerstream from my personal portfolio and add to my Activision Blizzard position.

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Towerstream Catapults 40%

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July 24, 2009 | SIN Picks | Author Asif

While configuring a Dell (DELL) laptop earlier this month, I noticed that Dell was now offering WiMax as an option for the wireless card in its Inspiron line of laptops. To borrow a line from a comment following Dell’s May 5, 2009 announcement regarding the availability of WiMax on two of its computers, “if Wi-Fi is a beard then Wi-Max is like a full body beard, with all over coverage.” It has been a long journey for some of us early WiMax investors but it looks like mobile WiMax may finally be within reach of consumers. Whether WiMax continues to benefit from its lead in the consumer sector or gets eventually eclipsed by competing standards like LTE and HSPA+ remains to be seen.

While Clearwire (CLWR) along with its partners Sprint (S) and Intel (INTC) targets the consumer sector, Towerstream (TWER) has carved a niche for itself providing wireless T1 services at very competitive prices to businesses. Beyond T1 lines, Towerstream also provides a whole spectrum of services that targets everyone from small businesses to Fortune 1000 companies with fractional T1s with speeds of just 512 Kbps to high capacity connections with speed of up to 200 Mbps. Beyond the competitive rates that Towerstream provides, the true redundancy offered from a wireless connection that does not depend upon the copper lines of incumbent carriers like AT&T (T) is certainly attractive to IT managers in a business environment where an “always on” internet connection is critical.

I got a chance to speak to Towerstream’s CEO Jeff Thompson last Thursday about a number of questions that were on my mind following the company’s announcement that it had signed a record number of contracts in June. These questions were partly the result of a discussion in the comments section of my November 2008 article about the company called Towerstream Trading Below Cash and partly on account of a conversation I had with an ex-employee who had been laid off from Towerstream.

In anticipation of high growth last year, the company had put together a sales team in excess of 100 sales representatives. As economic conditions changed and investors became more risk averse, Towerstream shifted its focus towards breaking even and proving out its business model. Despite this shift in focus and weak economic conditions, the company has consistently increased revenue over the last four quarters and even managed to improve gross margins to 76% last quarter. In addition to reducing the size of its sales team through attrition and smaller rounds of layoffs, the company laid off 35 employees from its work force in early June. The represented a 21% reduction in head count and could end up saving the company between $1.2 million to $1.6 million in operating expenses.

The key question on my mind was the ability of Towerstream to sign a record number of contracts in June despite laying off a substantial number of employees from its sales and marketing departments. Jeff mentioned that the company continues to retain its top sales performers who brought in more than 90% of the business and were also able to fine tune certain marketing strategies with very good results. He elaborated on these strategies and I got a chance to see them in action.

Since business internet service contracts are usually at least a year or two in duration, the sales cycle for this industry is not very short as the San Francisco Towerstream sales representative who has been persistently calling me for the last 18 months can attest to. This would imply that some of the contracts that were closed in June could have very well been in the pipeline from before the layoffs. The corollary from this statement is that sales could flatten in coming quarters if the marketing strategy management discussed does not continue to bear fruit as expected.

Satisfied with the response to the June contracts question, I asked Jeff about the size of the federal broadband stimulus program and if Towerstream would consider entering the retail consumer segment in light of this stimulus program. Jeff told me that the federal broadband stimulus program is $7.2 billion in size and that Towerstream plans to apply for these grants. The company however does not have any plans to enter the retail segment and wants to retain its focus on the business sector.

I also asked management about the increase in churn to 1.68% in the first quarter of 2009 when compared to 1.23% in the fourth quarter of 2008. Jeff attributed the increase in Q1 churn to weak economic conditions and mentioned that management is closely monitoring churn. Since sales is all about relationships, I am concerned that we might see an increase in churn following the June layoffs. The company reports second quarter results on August 5th and it will be interesting to see if the churn number holds below 2%.

The last time I spoke to Jeff, I asked him about the WiMax equipment providers that Towerstream uses and he told me that Alvarion was one of their key suppliers. Since Alvarion (ALVR) is a SINLetter model portfolio and also in my personal portfolio, I asked Jeff if they were continuing to work with Alvarion and it was reassuring to hear that Alvarion is still their preferred provider for equipment up to 5 Mbps.

I think the big wild card with Towerstream is accessibility to the broadband stimulus dollars, which as Jeff very cleverly reminded me is a grant and not a loan that has to be repaid. As to what caused the 40% spike in the price of the stock yesterday on volume that was more than 10 times average daily volume, your guess is as good as mine. The stock is up 143% since my November 26, 2008 call about Towerstream trading below cash and as I mentioned in my previous blog entry The Timeless Question: To sell or not to sell, taking profits from time to time is never a bad idea. The ex-employee I spoke to was clearly unhappy about what happened and felt that the company was “top heavy” but nothing in the conversation raised any red flags for me. Management sounded very confident on the call last week and I continue to remain bullish on the stock.

Voluntary Disclosure: I am long Towerstream in my personal portfolio.

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