ATLANTA - Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates extended an olive branch to bankers here Tuesday, saying that Microsoft wants to enter into partnerships with them, not take over their business.
In a long-anticipated and ballyhooed appearance at the Bank Administration Institute's retail delivery systems conference, Mr. Gates sought immediately to clear the air about his much-repeated "dinosaur" remark of last year.
"I actually said many banking systems are dinosaurs," he said, before unabashedly pitching Microsoft and its technology as the industry's best path to a high-tech future.
"We're not in any way, in any sense, going to do what banks do," Mr. Gates told a rapt crowd of 5,000 in his first such industry appearance since the alleged "dinosaur" insult in a Newsweek magazine article.
Just as Microsoft met its early successes through well-timed, cooperative linkups with Intel Corp., IBM, and others, he said, "Our success with Microsoft Money will depend solely on the bank partners we're able to work with."
Microsoft Money, the financial software that 21 institutions are using to deliver banking services to personal computers, is part of a multifaceted approach to the industry that also involves the Microsoft NT platform that is being deployed in a growing number of retail branch networks.
The software billionaire also tied Microsoft's fate - and the banking industry's - to the anticipated explosion of business activity on the Internet and their ability to adjust to the "new way of working with your customers" that the most openly and easily accessible of computer networks will make possible.
He said the Internet "changes the framework for all of us ... I believe that every bank will choose to have its own Web presence," referring to the multimedia segment of the Internet known as the World Wide Web.
While he sees banks continuing to control customer relationships, "Microsoft comes in with the technology to make it all possible. We think in this new world of technology, we are the best partner and we look forward to the opportunity of working with many of you."
One bank decidedly in the Microsoft fold, U.S. Bancorp of Portland, Ore., had a hand in Mr. Gates' high-tech presentation, which ranged from a comical video to a demonstration of home banking complete with a video connection to a call center using technology from another Microsoft partner, Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories.
Linda Parker, a U.S. Bank senior vice president, walked the audience through Microsoft Money and a "virtual branch" on the Internet.
Mr. Gates was received warmly and with extended applause. He told the bankers that his visit was a "wonderful break" from his current book tour.
"I'm really pleased to see the Internet is driving this," said Catherine Corby of Barnett Banks Inc. "I think Microsoft for some time has recognized they were hurting their sales to banks" by appearing to be a potential rival.
Ms. Corby, who coordinates Barnett's alternative delivery systems, viewed Mr. Gates' speech as the most recent step in Microsoft's campaign to improve its image, a process that began when its proposal to acquire Intuit Inc., the leader in personal finance software, was withdrawn in May.
Ms. Corby said her bank would not have considered a partnership with Microsoft while Intuit was in play. In light of its new stance and its collaborative work with Visa International, she said she would "not be uncomfortable" working with the Redmond, Wash., software colossus.
"There's a lot of gratuitous Microsoft-bashing," said Robert Hedges, a senior vice president with Fleet Financial Group. "It's clear they understand this is an issue."
"What Bill doesn't understand," Mr. Hedges added, is that the vast majority of banks are small and cannot afford electronic alternatives.
When an audience member asked Mr. Gates about community banks' access to the technology, he replied that Microsoft wants to "reach out" and "make our offering more turnkey for them."
Mr. Gates denied that Microsoft's ultimate ambition is to control transaction networks in a way that would allow it to collect "tolls" on each message. "Microsoft never said a transaction fee would be collected by a software company or a bank," he said, adding that the Internet does not lend itself to "a huge opportunity for anybody" to earn such fees.
David Weisman, an analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., asserted that Mr. Gates' statement about fees seemed to be an important change of heart.
"Instead of worrying about skimming a few cents from every transaction, they're sticking to their strength," Mr. Weisman said.
Ironically, Mr. Weisman pointed out that a year ago, bankers saw Microsoft as "the bad guy" and Intuit as a more tenable partner. With Microsoft embracing a more cooperative, open approach and Intuit setting up proprietary processing and communication channels, the tables may be turning - and Intuit chairman Scott Cook may have to address that in a speech here Wednesday.
"People will have a wary good feeling about this," Mr. Weisman said about the Gates appearance.
Jeffrey Kutler contributed to this article.