After stringing investors along for months, Microsoft ( MSFT) finally agreed to draw down its cash this week -- just two days before the company is expected to deliver strong fourth-quarter earnings. Trouble is, Microsoft shares inched up less than 2% Wednesday, a day after it announced a three-pronged plan to distribute its cash stash. The stock couldn't break through the $30 ceiling, a resistance point since last September. Bulls may argue that's just another buying opportunity, but Microsoft's performance this week still brings up a pesky question that has hounded the software colossus for some time: What will it take to put the spring back into Microsoft's stock? Some are looking to the fourth-quarter earnings report for help. One line of thinking is that Microsoft deliberately announced its cash plan before earnings because it didn't want to distract investors from strong numbers. In past quarterly conference calls, repeated questions about the company's ever-ballooning cash treasure have overshadowed Microsoft's results. "I think one of the reasons they did this announcement early this week was this clears the deck for them ... to talk about the operations of the company and the growth prospects of the company," said Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Charlie Di Bona, who has an outperform rating on Microsoft. (His firm doesn't do investment banking.) For the just-completed quarter, analysts are expecting Microsoft will earn 29 cents a share on $9 billion in revenue, representing an 11.5% jump in the top line from a year ago. But several analysts have said that they wouldn't be surprised if healthy PC and server demand help Microsoft deliver stronger-than-expected earnings and revenue numbers. Another attention-grabber Thursday will be deferred revenue -- an indicator of how many customers are renewing contracts to buy Microsoft software on a subscription basis. Most analysts are modeling for a $300 million to $350 million increase in deferred revenue.