Microsoft Corp. used a banking and brokerage conference that it sponsored last week to recant-sometimes with tongue in cheek-its historically negative opinion of the Internet.
Executives said the Redmond, Wash., company now generally supports the view that the future of remote banking will be tied closely to the World Wide Web, and that personal financial management products like Microsoft Money and Intuit Inc.'s Quicken will fuel Web use.
"We see overwhelming interest in harnessing the Web as a customer service and marketing channel," said Lewis Levin, vice president of Microsoft's desktop finance division.
"We'll reach a point where transacting on the Web becomes a really mainstream experience, and you don't need to have that level of tolerance to say, 'Well, I really want to do this and I'm willing to devote Saturday morning to it.' "
The Microsoft executives, senior bankers, junior systems designers, and others who gathered in Seattle to view the company's latest wizardry agreed that Web technology had a way to go before customers could use it without frustration. But the tools demonstrated at the conference raised hope that interesting and easy-to-use applications are on the way.
Matthew Cone, a Microsoft communications executive, demonstrated a prototype of a future hypothetical Wells Fargo & Co. Web site, which featured stock quotations crawling across the bottom of the screen, advertising flashing in corners, and links to economic news.
"Wells Fargo welcomes (the customer) and presents him with active items- overdraft notices, bill reminders, CD opportunities," Mr. Cone said. "We see home pages evolving into information sources."
The centerpieces of the conference were the announcement of Marble, a technology Microsoft said would help financial institutions build better Web sites, and a preview of Money 98, slated to be the first version of the financial management software that complies with the Open Financial Exchange (OFX) technical standard agreed to by Microsoft, Intuit, and Checkfree Corp.
With the scheduled release of Money 98 in the fall, Microsoft said it will be dropping all connectivity fees for banks.
The company's hope is to add to the more than 80 banks that currently offer on-line banking through Microsoft Money.
Executives from Intuit were quick to note that they never charged connectivity fees for Quicken, Microsoft's main-and still considerably bigger-competitor in the personal financial software market. However, before selling its processing unit to Checkfree, Intuit did charge banks transaction fees.
Microsoft has "upped the ante by saying 'everything is free,' " said Enrico Roderick, Intuit's director of banking.
Microsoft's fee-drop announcement caused more of a ripple than a splash. Scott Smith, an analyst at Jupiter Communications in New York, called it "more style than substance," adding that Microsoft was sure to make up the revenue in other ways.
Marble, the client/server technology that Microsoft says will take the "grunt work" out of building a transactional Web site, got higher marks.
"The Marble technology is great for us," Daniel M. Schley, chief executive officer of Home Financial Network, a Westport, Conn., software company that emphasizes simplicity for consumer-users. "It's the last link in the equation: It links the processor or gateway system to the front end. I think it answers that last question for banks."
Several of the Microsoft hosts confirmed visitors' suspicions about one of the not-so-hidden motives for the conference: selling products related to the Windows NT operating system.
"Our obvious desire is to promote NT," Mr. Levin conceded.
Some bankers and vendors grumbled about the sales pitch and about the limitations of NT.
"It's kind of expensive, and you're stuck in this one-vendor platform," said Daniel Jacoby, chief technology officer at Digital Insight, a Web-site company in Camarillo, Calif.
Others were more sanguine, expressing support for OFX and its server platform. "There are some things Microsoft is doing that we can leverage," said William A. Soward, director of application marketing for Edify Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif. "Later in 1997, we will be delivering all our software on NT."
Also grabbing guests' attention was a demonstration of Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0, a prototype of a new browser slated for release in the fall.
The company hopes 4.0 will give Netscape Communications Corp.'s competing Navigator a run for its money.
"One of the key parts of our strategy is to build a better user experience," said Brad Chase, the Microsoft vice president who showed off Explorer 4.0 and described it as "another area where we're really trying to push the envelope."
With a technology called Active Server, the new browser attempts to simplify some of the most cumbersome aspects of Web surfing.
An "auto complete" function fills in the Web addresses of sites a user has visited before, eliminating the need to remember long strings of letters. Users of the search engine can toggle between a search in progress and its results.
Mr. Chase also showed how the browser incorporates numerous types of "push" technology, delivering custom-tailored information to a Web user.
Louis Gasparini, vice president of Internet distribution systems at Wells Fargo, said he particularly liked the features of Explorer 4.0.
"Now you're really putting a good veneer on the 'push' side," he said.