Microsoft Cries Poverty

OK, poverty's a bit strong. But Microsoft's attempt to convince us that all is not perfect in Perfectland is a bit rich.
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Poor

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

.

The world's most valuable company can't really convey its poverty on an impersonal conference call. And it's an obvious fish out of water on the steps of a Washington, D.C., courthouse, where nobody seems to believe the lawyers' and PR folks' spin control. But in Seattle, at Microsoft's annual schmoozefest for analysts and institutional investors, the boys and girls of Redmond are in their element.

The schizophrenic message is delivered brilliantly. Part One: We're facing competition so ferocious that the growth rates you all have planned for us are a bit silly (are you listening

Judge Jackson?

) Part Two: By the way, we've got all sorts of nifty initiatives under way that will knock your socks off and keep us on top.

How does it play with the friendly audience? Great. Fully 44% of Microsoft's electronically polled guests believe Microsoft's fiscal 2000 revenue growth will be greater than 25%. "I frankly was shocked," cried President Steven Ballmer, known for his understated calm delivery style. "Come on, it's outlandish and crazy."

After all, opined Ballmer,

Linux

software alone is the single greatest competitive challenge Microsoft has faced since 1991, when

IBM

(IBM) - Get Report

issued its OS/2 operating system (which Microsoft crushed). "Linux is above all else a serious, albeit crazy, implementation of Unix on the Intel architecture," Ballmer said.

There are other risks too: the Java programming language, the increased interest by software applications developers in Web-based applications (as opposed to Windows), a rejuvenated

Oracle

(ORCL) - Get Report

, and the fearsome "law of big numbers," the fact of life that it's more difficult for a big organization to grow at the same rate it did when it was smaller.

But for every fear raised by Good Cop Ballmer, there quickly came a new triumph trumpeted by Bad Cop Jeffrey Raikes, group vice president of worldwide sales. (CFO Greg Maffei and CEO Bill Gates were scheduled to speak late Thursday.)

Microsoft is besting

Novell's

(NOVL)

NetWare software, Oracle's database software and everyone's Unix-based server software, said Raikes. As an example, Raikes contends that Oracle's database software requires twice the power, three times the memory and 2 1/2 times the cost of Microsoft's SQL Server database software.

So is Microsoft in good shape or bad? Is the outlook rosy or scary?

Depends who's listening.

Adam Lashinsky's column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Lashinsky writes a monthly column for Fortune called the Wired Investor, and is a frequent commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. He welcomes your feedback at

alashinsky@thestreet.com.