Microsoft Struts Its Stuff

Issues that analyst day in Redmond could clarify: company vigor, Vista and what to do with all that cash.
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"Vista" may be the moniker


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gave the next version of its Windows operating system, but investors haven't had a clear view of the long-anticipated product -- until maybe now.

Analysts and investors are hoping that Bill Gates & Co. will offer a closer peek at Vista, formerly called Longhorn, at the company's annual analyst-day meeting Thursday in Redmond, Wash., the day after Microsoft

released the first beta of the product. They're also looking for more clarity on a host of other issues, ranging from a higher dividend to Internet search.

"What I want to hear is that they've got renewed vigor to really execute on these opportunities and make sure they have the key people working in the right direction," says Chris Bonavico, a portfolio manager with Delaware Investments, which holds Microsoft shares. "I'm getting a little frustrated with the fact that things have been so long in coming."

Indeed, when it launches in late 2006, Vista will be Microsoft's first operating system update since Windows XP launched in 2001. The debut of Vista will culminate what Pacific Crest analyst Brendan Barnicle recently called Microsoft's "most exciting product cycle in several years."

Three products will kick off the cycle this fall: an update to the SQL server database, new developer tools called Visual Studio 2005, and Xbox 360, the next-generation video console. Then, Microsoft is expected to release the next version of its Office suite at the same time as Vista, followed by a new server operating system in 2007.

"These products should drive growth for Microsoft and provide the most compelling reason to own MSFT shares," Barnicle wrote in a note last week. Barnicle has an outperform rating on Microsoft and a lofty $40 price target on the stock -- one of the highest among analysts. (Barnicle or a member of his family holds Microsoft shares.)

Microsoft is certain to showcase many of the new products in glitzy demos during the analyst-day event -- eye-popping video-game graphics for Xbox 360 are a no-brainer. But of most interest to investors will be what Microsoft has to say about its two cash cows -- Windows and Office.

"I think what really gets people excited is the core product cycle -- Longhorn

Vista and Office 12," says Gus Zinn, an analyst with Waddell & Reed, which holds Microsoft shares.

Wednesday's slight lifting of the Vista lid revealed features that include a new user-interface and new software to create "Web services" -- which is a way for allowing different applications to talk to each other to enable more automation. In addition, Microsoft promises better security and search features.

But Michael Cherry, lead analyst for Windows and mobile at independent research firm Directions on Microsoft, says it's too early to judge Windows Vista because the beta lacks many features that will be in the final version, while many of the features it does contain are likely still quite rough.

Details, Details

So far, he says, "Microsoft hasn't really shown me any details that I can talk about and get excited about."

Some investors, however, are a little more upbeat about the next version of Windows. "I think Longhorn

Vista is going to be amazing," Bonavico says. "I think there are great things you can do when computers talk to each other to take manual processes out of our hands."

But that doesn't mean he wants to hear "dreamy discussions of the future of technology." Indeed, he suggested the company may be suffering a bit from ivory-tower syndrome at its Redmond, Wash., headquarters.

As a result, "there have been big, big markets that they've been slow to respond to," he says.

For example, Internet search: "They've been saying, 'wait until you see what we do in search.' Well, we've been waiting," Bonavico says.

It was at last year's analyst day that Microsoft showed off its revamped Internet search engine -- which looked remarkably similar to rival


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. But MSN continues to lag far behind Google. In the June quarter, Google's $1.32 billion in sales from paid search far surpassed the $582 million in revenue booked by Microsoft's MSN unit, which includes both paid search and other Internet advertising.

To add insult to injury, Microsoft has lost at least one key executive to Google. Earlier this month, Microsoft sued Google and former Microsoft executive Kai Fu Lee over Google's hiring of Lee to lead its China research and development center.

Another hot topic on investors' minds is dividends. Despite its record-breaking special dividend last year, Microsoft's cash balance still sits at a massive $37.75 billion.

"I still think they're keeping too much cash," says Duane Roberts, a portfolio manager with Dana Investment Advisors in Dallas-Ft. Worth whose firm sold its Microsoft holdings last year after the special dividend.

But "looking at what they do with their cash on an ongoing basis is something we want to pay attention to," says Roberts, who would like to see a higher dividend.

Goldman Sachs software analyst Rick Sherlund suggested that Microsoft could talk about raising its current dividend yield of 1.2% to match the 1.8% average of the

S&P 500


Instead of doubling the dividend from a small base -- as Microsoft did last year -- a 50% increase, to 48 cents from the year-ago 32 cents, would bring it in line with the S&P 500, says Sherlund, who notes that Microsoft is on schedule to reassess its annual dividend in August. He has an outperform rating on Microsoft, and his firm has a banking relationship with the company.

But Waddell & Reed's Zinn isn't expecting much talk about cash. "I think that was last year's story," he says. Rather, Zinn believes that it's the new products that will ultimately help the stock get its bounce back.

"You got to wait for Longhorn

Vista and make sure that in the meantime the things like Xbox and Sequel Server roll out well," says Zinn, whose firm holds Microsoft shares. "And fiscal 2007 will be a great year."

Of course, if he's wrong about the company's Windows update rendering 2007 a great year, it could mean more investors saying

"hasta la vista