Microsoft Corp. and Intuit Inc. have released new versions of their personal financial management software.

The enhancements mark a continuation in the battle for customer loyalty that has seen Microsoft close the gap between it and the perennial leader in the field.

Microsoft's Money is up to 7.8 million users, against 12.2 million for Intuit's Quicken, according to Media Metrix Inc. of New York. An assortment of other providers have a combined two million users.

Microsoft said 649 financial institutions let users connect to Money either through their Web sites or directly using the Open Financial Exchange standard, which allows bank data to be downloaded to Money. One hundred and twenty-seven institutions let their customers download bank data directly into Money, while 522 let them do so via their Web sites.

Intuit is working with 745 financial institutions. Of those, 66 let their customers download bank data directly into Quicken, while 679 let their users make the connection through the bank's Web site.

Christine M. Winkel, product manager for the Microsoft Money group, contends use of Money is "growing quickly."

Both vendors face hurdles in making their software more appealing to consumers. A study by NFO Research Inc. conducted in May indicated that 70% of those who intend to use personal finance software believe it is too time-consuming. In addition, while 60% of computer users have personal financial management software, just half of them actually use it.

Microsoft strived to make Money 2000 easier to use than its predecessor. The 2000 version was to become available today. One new feature is a "setup assistant" that walks users through the process of setting up accounts. Another is step-by-step navigation to reach the most frequent functions.

Microsoft has improved its "smart Internet connection" for linking to financial institutions. Users can now connect to a bank Web site from within the Money browser and download account balances and statements.

The new version also provides unlimited access to the MSN MoneyCentral investor site from within Money 2000. Two-way synchronization lets users enter transactions directly on MoneyCentral and have them be automatically updated on Money 2000, or vice versa.

Electronic bill presentment is not yet a feature of Money, Ms. Winkel said, though the "plumbing is in place" for it.

New tax tools on Quicken Suite 2000, which was introduced Aug. 23, let users analyze the tax implications of their investments for year-round tax planning. Expanded investment alerts, market index tracking for 18 indices, and employee stock option tracking have been added for investment decision-making.

A new "planning center" lets users play "what if" scenarios to see how changing one goal might affect their overall plan. A direct link to Quicken's Web site also is available in the new version.

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