A year after chairman Bill Gates set out to mend fences with the banking community, Microsoft Corp.'s transformation into a bank ally looked virtually complete at last week's Retail Delivery conference.
Through product giveaways, educational efforts, and old-fashioned public relations, Microsoft established its bona fides more convincingly than ever at the Bank Administration Institute conference.
And there was evidence that Microsoft is gaining where it really counts - in the marketplace -through growth in such areas as the NT operating system and Money personal finance software.
Microsoft Money appears to be making up ground in the business dominated by Intuit Inc.'s Quicken. One indication was a survey of personal-computer users by Atlanta-based Synergistics Research Corp., showing 13% use Money. Quicken still had a commanding 59%.
There was additional, anecdotal evidence of Money's gains. In the three weeks that Community Credit Union in Plano, Tex., has been offering both Money and Quicken, Money downloaders are outnumbering Quicken users two-to- one.
Through some partner companies, Microsoft also showed how its computer language, Active-X, could be used to get bank Web pages to function like personal financial software managers.
"The Internet provides the opportunity to do exactly what financial institutions have wanted to do for a long time - to get customers to go directly to them," said Lewis Levin, general manager of Microsoft's desktop finance division.
"We live and breathe the Web," added Money product manager Matthew Cone. "Bill (Gates) outlined the vision" at last year's Retail Delivery conference, he said. "This year, Microsoft is helping banks build on the Web."
Last year's remarks by Mr. Gates came only months after bankers interpreted Microsoft's attempted acquisition of Intuit as a threat. Mr. Gates apologized for what he said was a quotation taken out of context - that banks are dinosaurs - and proceeded to say Microsoft is bankers' friend.
This year, banks are buying Windows NT over its competitors by a 6-to-1 margin, Microsoft officials said. When demonstrating Internet-related products last week, vendors invariably used Microsoft's Internet browser, Explorer. And Microsoft placed booths throughout the Dallas convention center providing unlimited access to the Internet - through Explorer, of course.
To be sure, Microsoft still faces stiff competition in many areas, including its attempt to set financial data standards with the Open Financial Connectivity protocol it unveiled in March.
Others looking to establish similar standards include the Integrion Financial Network (Gold), Visa Interactive (Access Device Messaging Standard), and Intuit (Open Exchange).
Representatives from Integrion, Microsoft, and Intuit appeared on stage with panelists from Checkfree Corp. and Security First Technologies in a session dubbed "The Great Debate." The participants generally agreed that their respective standards needed to become interchangeable for on-line consumers to be best served.
Some questioned whether Microsoft was geared for such a cooperative effort. In last Wednesday's conference-opening speech, Sun Microsystems Inc. chief executive officer Scott McNealy mocked Mr. Gates as Big Brother.
Mr. McNealy touted Sun's Java computer language, citing its ability to operate with a wide variety of computer platforms, including Microsoft Windows, Apple Macintosh, and Unix.
But in the exhibition booths, more systems were written in Active-X than in Java.
Microsoft collaborators - such as Vertigo Development Corp., Checkfree Corp., Block Financial Corp., and Ultradata Corp. - are using Active-X to develop what they promise will be the next generation of banking Web sites.
But there were signs that the combat is far from over.
During the debate, an audience member asked the panelists which electronic banking technology each uses.
Security First Technologies chief executive officer Michael McChesney said he uses a sister company, Security First Network Bank. Microsoft's Mr. Levin said he uses Money.
But Quicken still took 60%: Intuit executive vice president William H. Harris, Checkfree's Ken Benvenuto, and Integrion's William M. Fenimore Jr.
"We use Quicken, and it has improved our quality of life," said Mr. Fenimore.