Ina Fried

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Still Strong: Microsoft Beat Estimates as Quarterly Sales Neared $20 Billion

Microsoft on Thursday reported earnings and revenue that topped expectations and rose significantly from a year ago amid strong sales from its Xbox unit.

For the three months ended Dec. 31, Microsoft earned $6.63 billion, or 77 cents per share, on revenue of $19.95 billion. The per-share number is up from 74 cents a year ago and ahead of the analysts’ average prediction of about 68 cents per share.

“We are enthusiastic about the consumer response to our holiday lineup of products, including the launch of Kinect,” CFO Peter Klein said in a statement. “The 8 million units of Kinect sensors sold in just 60 days far exceeded our expectations,” said Peter Klein, chief financial officer at Microsoft. “The pace of business spending, combined with strong consumer demand, led to another quarter of operating margin expansion and solid earnings per share growth.”

Not only were the results ahead of estimates financially–they were also ahead of estimates chronologically, as the company accidentally released the information before the end of regular trading on Thursday. Results were expected to be released after the closing bell.

“A preproduction draft of our earnings release was discovered by one or more media sources who then published our results to the web before market close,” Microsoft said in a statement. “After consulting with NASDAQ, we have posted our official numbers. We apologize for any confusion and will review our procedures to ensure this does not happen again.”

With the results from the past quarter, Apple passed Microsoft slightly in quarterly revenue, but did not–as some analysts thought might happen–surpass Redmond in profits as well. The company also noted it bought back $5 billion in shares during the quarter and handed out $1.3 billion in dividends to shareholders.

The gaming unit wasn’t the only part of Microsoft going strong. Redmond said its Office unit also had a big quarter, growing 24 percent from a year earlier, and that Windows 7 license sales have now passed 300 million.

“Business demand for our productivity and infrastructure products and cloud solutions is strong,” COO Kevin Turner said in a statement. “Office had a huge quarter, exceeding everyone’s expectations, and our roadmap for cloud productivity with Office 365 makes products like SharePoint, Exchange, Lync and Dynamics CRM even more attractive to our customers.”

The company noted in a PowerPoint presentation accompanying its results that nine out of 10 businesses have now started their formal migration to Windows 7. Turner also pointed to Microsoft’s longer-term move to bring Windows to ARM-based processors.

“Windows 7 continues to be the fastest-growing operating system in history, and our recent system-on-a-chip announcement demonstrates our commitment that Windows will have the power and flexibility to run everywhere and on every device,” he said.

The company also said its online advertising sales were up 23 percent during the quarter.

However, Microsoft’s outlook was limited, offering guidance only for what it expects its operating expenses to be. In the PowerPoint, Microsoft offered a bit more information, detailing its unit-by-unit expectations relative to their markets. For example, the company said that Windows growth should roughly track the PC market, adjusting for some boost the company got a year ago from the launch of Windows 7. Server sales should also track the hardware market, with long-term licensing and services revenue growing in the high single digits for the current quarter and low double digits for the full fiscal year, which runs through the end of June. The company said the entertainment unit should enjoy year-over-year revenue growth of 50 percent for the current quarter and 40 percent for the full fiscal year.

Here’s a full look at the company’s segment-by-segment results (click to enlarge):

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald