Microsoft Corp. is rapidly establishing itself as one of the key brokers of investment information on the Internet.
The software giant over the weekend was to launch the fourth version of its Microsoft Investor Web site in less than a year. Like numerous other sources of stock information on the Web, the site allows individual investors to chart and track investment portfolios.
But Microsoft has added software tools that locate stocks that meet investors' customized criteria and sends E-mail alerts when stocks rise above or drop below a certain price. The Redmond, Wash.-based company has also hired financial journalists to provide original market analyses.
"What we are trying to do is to make Microsoft Investor the best place on the Web to invest," said Kirk J. Koenigsbauer, product manager for the Web site. Investor is a part of the company's desktop financial division that also includes the Money personal financial manager.
Although Microsoft doesn't permit individuals to initiate market trades, the site links unobtrusively to five on-line brokerages-Charles Schwab & Co., Fidelity Investments, E-Trade Group, PC Financial Network, and Waterhouse. That permits users to buy and sell stocks and mutual funds without ever having to leave Microsoft's menu bar behind.
Perhaps more than any on-line information outlet, Microsoft Investor blurs the once-clear lines between financial institutions, technology companies, and news providers.
Indeed, the variety of company types getting involved in the business of providing investment information is dizzying.
Besides Microsoft, there are other software companies, like Intuit Inc.'s Quicken Financial Network. Fidelity and Schwab's brokerage services are also getting into the act with high-octane Web sites permitting trades. Internet search engine Yahoo!, one of the world's most-trafficked Web sites, now sports a special section for investment information, as do on- line services like America Online Inc. and traditional news media like The Wall Street Journal and Cable News Network.
For now, banks are one of the few missing plates at the table. First Chicago NBD, however, seems eager to change that.
On May 1, First Chicago became one of the first U.S. banks to offer stock, mutual fund, and portfolio tracking information on its Web site. "I think we made a good effort, and we will continue to do this over time as part of our Internet strategy for banking, checking, and paying bills," said Tim M. Kemp, manager of on-line services for First Chicago.
"Obviously, Microsoft can probably put more resources into it," said Mr. Kemp.
In an interview before the launch of the site's latest version, Mr. Koenigsbauer sketched a circle of six customer needs-the combination of reasons that account for Microsoft's calculation that there are 125,000 unique users regularly accessing the Web site.
Those needs start with actual financial services like access to trading and the ability to keep up-to-date with the market and trends that are driving respective industries.
"We are not trying to duplicate the news that investors have access to from Reuters and MSNBC," said Dan Fischer, a former Los Angeles Times business reporter and editor who heads up a 9-member editor staff at Microsoft Investor. "We are trying to put together analysis and provide a forum for investment ideas," he said.
But Microsoft views its software tools at least as importantly as it views its editorial content.
"The keys are the ability to evaluate current holdings and evaluate future opportunities," said Mr. Koenigsbauer, describing the third and fourth functions of the site's portfolio manager and investment finder.
The site also hosts a research center where users can access Web pages with basic information about companies culled from data bases organized by Hoovers Inc., Morningstar Inc., PC Quote Inc., and others. Future enhancements will include more emphasis on learning and community, the last two basic customer investment needs, said Mr. Koenigsbauer.
The information will not come cheap. Bucking the tradition of free data on the Internet, Microsoft will attempt to impose monthly charges of $10 ($7 for subscribers to the Microsoft Network) for certain "premium" information.
Microsoft will also use Investor as somewhat of a showcase for the company's Active-X technology, a competitor to Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java programming language that significantly expands the scope of information that can be conveyed over the Internet.
Despite Microsoft's ambitions for the site, competitors argue that it is limited both in speed of delivery and in scope. "I still think that AOL has advantages in terms of speed," said Robert C. Shenk, director of programming for America Online's personal finance channel.
Because of its eight-million-member base, the on-line service renders up to 40 million stock quotes a day. Requests for stock information are issued at a rate of up to 1,300 requests a second during peak hours, an AOL spokeswoman said.
And Intuit's financial supersite is broader and deeper than Microsoft's investment-only site, said Andy Cohen, group product manager at the software maker's Quicken Financial Network.
"With Insuremarket, you can purchase insurance, and now you can do banking transactions on the Internet with BankNOW," he said, referring to the Mountain View, Calif.-based company's easy-to-use personal financial manager.
The site also provides tax information, mutual fund information, and stock quotes to hundreds of thousands of users each month.