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Ballmer: Time to ante up online

CEO Steve Ballmer again tries to make the case that Microsoft's online investments represent just a fraction of its operating income. But when will it start to pay off?

Updated 10 a.m. PDT, with more details on spending plans

REDMOND, Wash.--In trying to explain Microsoft's continued decision to spend in its money-losing online services business, CEO Steve Ballmer likened it to a game of high-stakes poker.

"We are going to have to ante up in a significant way to even be in this game," he said.

Ballmer: Online investments a fraction of operating income. Ina Fried/CNET News

But, he said, as both advertising and content move online, the opportunity is huge.

"There's at least a trillion dollars just in media, communications, and advertising, not all of which we can capture," Ballmer said.

(It seems every time Microsoft talks about the opportunity, it grows, even if Microsoft's market share doesn't.)

In any case, Ballmer made the familiar case that the scale of the opportunity for a company of Microsoft's size is too big to ignore.

The money that Microsoft is spending, he said, is a few hundred million dollars in losses each year, but amounts to around 5 percent of the company's overall operating income.

"Some say it's too expensive," Ballmer said. "It's a relatively small percentage investment from an overall Microsoft standpoint, in order to have a real opportunity at significant acceleration of our market value. I think it is a very good risk return."

Ballmer did say that the investment will have to continue until Microsoft gets more scale, which he said he could not put a time frame on.

Of note, one slide Ballmer showed pointed to an investment of 5 percent to 10 percent of operating income until the company has a more significant share of the market.

Ballmer's comments came at the start of Microsoft's financial analysts meeting, which runs all day here.

Originally, Ballmer said, he wasn't planning to give the online pitch, but said recent organizational changes (i.e. the departure of online business head Kevin Johnson) forced him into duty.

But, he said, the company thought it was important that "whoever gives this presentation was actually still going to be here in three weeks."

Update: Ballmer went into detail of where that online spending is going. He talked about how Microsoft's costs to maintain its search index have to be nearly as high as Google, despite the fact that Microsoft has a lower volume of searches.

Microsoft also has to spend more in other areas than Google, by virtue of its No. 2 position. Marketing was one area, he said, where Microsoft will have to outspend the market leader. "Google doesn't have to. We do," Ballmer said.

Ballmer also said that the on-again, off-again talks with Yahoo are in the "off-again" stage.