Moving with its customary aggressiveness, Microsoft Corp. is seeking new ways to persuade people to manage their money and conduct financial transactions through its Web sites and software.
Even so, the general manager of Microsoft's financial products group insists that banks have nothing to fear, that "they are customers of ours, our financial partners," and that the software company's only goal is to provide the best financial service to "our shared customers," the consumers.
Among other things, Erik Jorgensen oversees Microsoft's MSN Money site - which offers financial tools for consumers - and its Microsoft Money personal financial management software.
In an interview last week, he said that the site, formerly known as MoneyCentral, has begun offering account aggregation through Yodlee Inc., the aggregation vendor that so many banks use. The site was renamed to link it more tightly in customers' minds with MSN, one of the top three Internet portals, Mr. Jorgensen said.
Though people can now check their balances, transfer funds, and do other financial transactions without leaving the site, Mr. Jorgensen took pains to assure the financial community that Microsoft wants to pursue its plans "in a way that is not disintermediating the institution."
He spoke last week in New York as Microsoft announced a series of developments in personal financial services:
o The launching of the CNBC on MSN Money site, which extended Microsoft's partnership with General Electric Co.'s NBC broadcasting division. The site offers information from the CNBC business news channel along with financial tools and services from MSN.
o Shipment of the 10th version of its Microsoft Money financial management software, with more than 100 improvements and tighter integration with the Internet. Money competes with Intuit Inc.'s Quicken financial software, which remains the market leader.
o Localized versions of the MSN Money site in 14 nations, including recent expansions into Canada, Italy, and South Africa. Microsoft is shipping international versions of the Money software to Canada, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.
The software giant now offers customized financial information to three-quarters of the world's Internet-enabled population, Mr. Jorgensen said.
Almost lost in the flurry of other announcements was the disclosure that Microsoft had agreed to use Yodlee for account aggregation. Yodlee, the market leader in aggregation, works with many financial companies - including Citigroup Inc., American Express Co., and Wells Fargo & Co. - to present a customer with information on a single Web page about a variety of accounts from different sources.
Microsoft said its customers will be able to view the Yodlee-aggregated information through Microsoft's financial analysis tools, including the Budget Tracker and Spending Analysis software at the CNBC on MSN Money site.
If this sounds as though the software company is poaching on turf that banks consider their own - a growing number of institutions are offering various financial calculators and more sophisticated analytics - well, that's just the way it is.
Mr. Jorgensen acknowledged that, in such areas, MSN is indeed competing with banks for the eyeballs of the consumer. However, he argued that this is to the customer's benefit.
"There is a move on the consumer's part toward simplification," he said. "Consumers want to figure out one set of Web services."
In another high-tech field - electronic wallets - Microsoft is plunging ahead with its Passport service just as financial companies are pulling back.
Both Amex and Wells Fargo announced this summer that they are pulling the plug on services that let customers store personal information - including passwords for Web sites, shipping data for online shopping, even credit card numbers - because of technical hurdles and limited customer adoption.
Mr. Jorgensen declined to criticize the bank-sponsored services, except to say that they lacked the "critical mass" that Microsoft Passport offers.
Also, Microsoft's clout with the software community could persuade developers to build shopping-information pages to read the data in Passport wallets, he said.
However, Mr. Jorgensen emphasized that Microsoft does not want to get into the financial services business itself but instead wants to facilitate services between financial companies and their customers. "We believe we are a close partner and not a competitor at all with banks," he said.
At the same time, he seemed to leave little doubt that Microsoft's vision of the consumer's needs, rather than the banks', would dictate the presentation of information on its sites.
Though the company wants only to facilitate transactions, he said, a key question is: "How do we get their products and services in front of the consumer at the relevant time?"