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Never mind the cash--how's Microsoft's business?

With that big pile of loot set to be distributed, investors can focus on the software giant's performance.

With the cash question settled, investors will be looking elsewhere on Microsoft's balance sheet for answers.

After asking investors for months of patience, Microsoft on Tuesday announced a plan to return $75 billion to shareholders over four years through a combination of increased dividends, stock buybacks and a one-time payout of $32 billion. That had been a major concern of analysts who felt that a distribution of cash could boost Microsoft's share price, which has been flat for some time.

With quarterly results due Thursday, investors can spend their time scrutinizing other aspects of Microsoft, namely its individual business segments and the company's balance of unearned revenue--money already taken in as part of long-term contracts.

In particular, people want to see how well Microsoft has done in convincing customers of its older Upgrade Advantage licensing program to switch to the newer Software Assurance program. Microsoft has said the renewal rate will likely be low, on the order of 10 percent to 30 percent.

In a research note Monday, Goldman Sachs analyst Rick Sherlund suggested that Microsoft may have better news on that front than expected.

"We have heard positive comments from resellers on renewal rates, leading us to believe that 20 percent, or perhaps 30 percent, could be renewing, at the higher end of management's expectations," Sherlund said in a research note.

More broadly, software industry watchers will be looking to the Microsoft report as a possible bright spot in what has been a tough quarter, marked by earnings warnings from Siebel Systems, BMC Software, PeopleSoft and Veritas Software, among others.

While Microsoft has not commented specifically on this quarter, CEO Steve Ballmer has been upbeat in recent declarations on the health of Microsoft's business, and various reports suggest that PC sales have been strong.

In April, Microsoft predicted earnings of 23 cents per share, including 5 cents of expenses related to stock-based compensation, and revenue of $8.9 billion to $9 billion.

"Microsoft should have some upside to estimates, given indications that PC and server demand have been quite healthy during the quarter," Sherlund wrote, pointing to reports from computer makers Dell, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, as well as chipmakers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. Sherlund noted that Microsoft based its expectations on 10 percent PC growth, while Gartner and IDC reported that growth was 13 percent to 15 percent for the quarter ended in June.

Ballmer also expressed long-term optimism during the conference call Tuesday that announced the cash distribution.

"When I look at the potential for growth in our company over the next several years, I think you would be hard-pressed to find any company that's got that kind of dollar growth prospects over the next several years," Ballmer told reporters and analysts. "So I think of us as very much in a phase of great opportunity and a phase, frankly, of significant growth."