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Wednesday, October 22, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Microsoft's signals mixed on potential acquisitions

By Seattle Times staff and wire services

SPENCER PLATT / GETTY IMAGES
Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates launches the new Microsoft Office System in New York City yesterday. The upgrade allows colleagues to collaborate on documents and manage data over the Web.
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Microsoft executives sent mixed messages yesterday about potential acquisitions, tantalizing investors waiting to see what the company will do with its $49 billion in cash.

Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, speaking at a technology conference in Orlando, Fla., sponsored by Gartner, a research and consulting firm, said investors should "stand by for news" of acquisitions. He declined to elaborate. He also said the company would like to add to the 4,000 consultants it employs.

But Chairman Bill Gates downplayed the news later in an interview with Bloomberg News in New York, where he launched the marketing campaign for Microsoft's new Office programs.

"I don't think he meant to suggest there was something imminent," Gates said about Ballmer's comments. "Every year we do buy some additional software companies. There's nothing in the works that he was trying to hint at there."

Gates said the company is generally reluctant to make acquisitions because "it wouldn't make sense for us to go outside to get technology in particular markets because we have always used partners and always succeeded with partners."

Analyst Rick Sherlund at Goldman Sachs — an investment bank that does business for Microsoft — said Ballmer perhaps was referring to small acquisitions to support the Office product line in the small- to midsize-business market.

As for the cash, Sherlund speculated the company may pay a special dividend sometime around January.

The executives' comments had little effect on Microsoft's stock, which closed yesterday at $29.35, up less than a penny.


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