Microsoft may be the devil incarnate to its competitors and the US Justice Department, but it's still the darling of the American public, according to the results of an electronic survey conducted by Vote.com, an online voting website created by Dick Morris, former advisor to US President Bill Clinton.

On May 22, the 11th day of a survey asking whether voters would buy Microsoft's stock now, 902 respondents, or 81%, said "yes", while 19%, or 217, said "no". In a separate survey asking whether they agreed with a court ruling that Microsoft violated antitrust laws, 22,305, or 82% of respondents said they disagreed, while just 4,837, or 18%, said they agreed. Finally, when asked whether the government should split Microsoft into two companies, 37,052, or 89% said "no", while just 4,757, or 11% said "yes".

This would be heartwarming for Bill Gates, Microsoft's chief executive, if those opinions were translated into stock-buying action. But in the 11 days voters were giving the thumbs up to Microsoft's shares, the stock sank nearly 7% to $65.06 from $69.81. Clearly, the US public at large is no gauge of market sentiment.

On the other hand, a statistically representative poll of investors might be. Vote.com, based in the US, is building up a list of businesses, governments and institutions that are willing to pay for online polls that could help them determine the mood of the market and, by extension, their strategic and financing decisions.

"Clients are reluctant to pay the high cost of a telephone poll when they can do it for less than a third of the cost online," says Morris.

One company that has already signed on with seven-month-old Vote.com is Credit Lyonnais Securities Asia in Hong Kong. In an attempt to understand the forces moving US equity markets, the investment bank decided to poll retail investors, whose optimism and continued willingness to invest in stocks that many professionals consider expensive, had been key to the prolonged US bull market.

CLSA says it will conduct, together with Vote.com, bi-weekly online and telephone surveys "as a pointer to our emerging market clients of what behavior we could expect from these investors; what they are thinking today that will impact their behavior tomorrow".

The company's first survey, conducted between April 21-24 and May 8-12, polled 1,000 investors by telephone and 2,000 online. It found that while most investors expect the pace of the boom to slow, almost none expect it to end. Large individual investors in particular believe the boom will continue unabated for the next year or two. The survey found that evidence the economy was sliding into recession would be the only thing to trigger a loss of confidence in the markets.

Vote.com, which attracted half a million voters in its first two months, is one of the fastest-growing internet start-ups ever. With just eight employees, the company expects to cover its costs by the end of the second quarter of 2001. That's partly because it has spent relatively little on advertising. In its first two months it spent $1.3 million and attracted 250,000 users. In its second two months it spent $30,000 and attracted 600,000 users. Since then it has grown largely by word of mouth. By March, the site was already listed as one of the 500 most visited US-based websites, according to measuring company Media Metrix.

Morris says he wants Vote.com to eventually be present in every major country. By the end of this year he expects to begin operations in Japan, Korea, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, the UK, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden.