The last time Microsoft ( MSFT) reported earnings, the software giant threw its stock into a tailspin, announcing weaker-than-expected income and much heavier-than-expected spending .
When the company reports fourth-quarter results late Thursday, investors will be waiting to see if the other shoe -- a delay in the already very late next version of Windows -- will drop. If it does, batten down the hatches: The stock will take another hit. At least one high-profile analyst, Rick Sherlund of Goldman Sachs, has repeatedly speculated that Vista, as the new operating system is called, will miss its January ship date. But he figures that an announcement of a delay now actually would be a plus because it will get the bad news out of the way and clear the decks for a better 2007. Even if Microsoft doesn't announce a delay, the stock won't necessarily be in for smooth sailing. There are expectations that the company will make a number of major announcements next week during its annual analyst day on the Redmond, Wash., campus; another pushback of the Vista launch could be one of them. However, the company lately has been signaling that the launch will proceed as planned. Microsoft is still telling its hardware and software partners that its goal is to release the new versions of Office and Windows simultaneously in January, according to Mary Jo Foley, a longtime industry observer who writes for the Microsoft Watch Web site. Because its fiscal year is ending, Microsoft likely will give fairly detailed guidance for 2007, including a breakdown of expected sales by each of the company's five new business units. The guidance should include expectations for sales of major new products, including Windows Vista, Office 2007 and Xbox 360. Indeed, guidance may be more significant than the fourth-quarter results, which are likely to be close to Wall Street's forecast of a profit of 30 cents a share on revenue of $11.6 billion. To view Street Insight's video preview of Microsoft, please click here .