It looks like Microsoft ( MSFT) has cried wolf too many times.

Investors shrugged off the software behemoth's conservative outlook for 2005, bidding up the stock Friday in the wake of the firm's strong top- and bottom-line third-quarter results. After all, many noted, Microsoft gave similarly conservative guidance a year ago -- only to prove itself wrong with revenue growth on track to reach an impressive 13% this year.

On Friday, Microsoft shares jumped $1.59, or 6.1%, to $27.54 with more than 255 million shares changing hands -- about four times its average daily volume.

Simply put, investors and analysts weren't buying Microsoft's line about it facing difficult comparisons next year. While Microsoft forecast 2005 sales would range from $37.8 billion to $38.2 billion, or growth of 3.6% to 4.9%, the average analyst estimate edged up Friday to $38.6 billion, or growth of 5.9%, vs. $38.5 billion on Thursday, according to Thomson First Call.

"There are also things that work in Microsoft's favor that could make their guidance prove a little bit on the conservative side," pointed out Marty Shagrin, a software analyst with Victory Capital Management, which holds Microsoft shares.

Topping that list are PC sales. Microsoft estimated PC shipments grew 14% in the fiscal third quarter ending in March. In comments that bode well for the rest of the tech sector, CFO John Connors declared businesses were finally opening up their purses and projected PCs would grow 10% in the company's fiscal fourth quarter, which ends in June.

But Microsoft management forecast PC growth would drop to about 8% in fiscal 2005, which begins in July. That's considerably lower than the 11% to 12% growth estimated by research firms Gartner and IDC, Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund noted Friday.

"I don't disagree with them that it's going to be a slower growth year," Sherlund said in a conference call Friday morning. But "maybe there's upside to these numbers."

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