First National Bank of Bill

What business is Microsoft in, anyhow?

Fabio called your dear Auntie into the living room last night to display his latest creation. We’d been eating take-out food for a few weeks—such was the depth of his artistic inspiration—but the result was worth it: a wonderful trompe l’oeil marble mantelpiece painted around our authentic gas-burning fireplace. Trompe l’oeil, of course, is art that “fools the eye”; it might look like expensive marble, but it was really just the dear boy’s skill with paint on plaster.

You see, things are not always as they appear. For example, you probably thought that Microsoft was a software company. Far be it from this one-time ukulele player to argue with her darling readers, but it seems to me that the software business is merely the start of the story. Now that Microsoft is maturing, it seems obvious that there’s a different plan behind the windows: the metamorphosis of the company into a bank.

Before you decide that Auntie has finally lost the last of her dwindling supply of marbles, consider the evidence:

1. All that cash, of course. Microsoft is sitting on top of a pile of money to the tune of around $50 billion. Who else has that sort of money lying around? Why, bankers, naturally.

2. Look at some of the software Microsoft has been snapping up lately: Great Plains, Navision, Solomon. What better way to make the transition from software company to banking company than through business software? And there’s the venerable Microsoft Money, with its online banking functionality, as a consumer tie-in.

3. It turns out Microsoft is already in the financing business. If you’re not in touch with the Microsoft Certified Business Solution Partner side of things, you might not have heard of the Total Solution Financing program. It’s a one-stop way for businesses to finance the cost of new software, hardware and consulting to run Microsoft solutions, administered by Microsoft Capital Corporation.

It might seem odd to you to start with a software company and end up with a bank, but, in fact, there’s lots of precedent for this sort of thing. Chemical Bank, for example, was originally just an appendage of the New York Chemical Manufacturing Company, which gradually got out of the chemical business entirely. The Bank of Manhattan was an offshoot of the Manhattan Company, which was founded to bring water to New York City. And the historic Bank of England was founded as a sort of scam to give King William III the funds to fight a war with France.

Of course, Microsoft isn’t planning to fight a war with France—at least, not that we know of here at Chez Auntie. But it is in the business of maximizing shareholder value (and now that the stock is paying dividends, shareholder return, as well). Given the increasing difficulty of building new versions of Windows without running afoul of consent decrees and class-action suits on the one hand, and the rising threat of open source and free software on the other, doesn’t it make sense to have a fallback plan?

Think about how easy it would be to make the transition. Instead of “Click here to start,” Longhorn could ship with “Click here to deposit.” Traditionally, banks gave away toasters with new accounts; Internet Explorer is already generous with pop-ups! The constant recurrence of “trustworthy” in Microsoft press releases could just be softening us up, subliminally, to drop our cash into Redmond’s vaults. Besides, what computer user wouldn’t get a kick out of being able to actually withdraw money from Microsoft for a change?

So, there’s my story. Still, Microsoft continues to be a fairly small company, so it’ll need some help from those of us out here in the partner community to make the transition. I wonder whether a Microsoft Certified Branch Bank will need two MCSEs or three on staff?

Got a better theory to account for the facts? Or a better place for Microsoft to invest those billions? Send and e-mail and let me know.

About the Author

Em C. Pea, MCP, is a technology consultant, writer and now budding nanotechnologist who you can expect to turn up somewhere writing about technology once again.

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