Whenever Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) name comes up in water-cooler chat, you'll often hear someone interject that your money is better spent somewhere else. When you consider that Microsoft's stock is currently sitting at the same place it was in 1998, despite accumulating net earnings in excess of $50 billion since then, it's hard to debate the point.

But that's the same response we used to hear about Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), too. And what was once a rotten apple of an investment has now become an investment darling. Fueled by the hip iPod, Apple's stock has gained more than 400% over the past couple of years.

With Xbox unit sales down 34% in July compared with the same period a year ago, Microsoft is looking for an iPod-like buzz to generate a similar level of excitement. Could the upcoming release of the Xbox 360 do the trick for Microsoft? Taking a peek at the new console has this Fool thinking Microsoft's stock may be in for quite a run.

The 360 is billed as both a video game and an entertainment system. It will play games, and it will play them like we've never seen before. Using architecture similar to Apple's graphic-intensive Power Mac systems, the unit will bring a new high-definition level to console gaming. But the 360 will be much more than a toy. Its voice-chat interface could just be the bait that hooks the entire family.

The guts of the unit are made to impress, but even the unit's exterior will be much more appealing. Its color and curves give it an Apple-like feel, which is definitely a good thing. The 360's look will also be customizable with the use of skins -- much like the skins used to personalize cell phones.

Microsoft plans to roll out the product just in time for Christmas, beating Sony (NYSE:SNE) and the third edition of the PlayStation by a few months. And once Sony does release its PS3, Microsoft will counter by releasing its Halo 3 game.

This industry saw $10 billion worth of console games sold in 2004. With new console systems hitting store shelves in the coming months, there will be lots of opportunities to make big money in 2006. This is good news for Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:ERTS) and Take-Two Interactive (NASDAQ:TTWO), and it could be outstanding news for Microsoft shareholders.

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Fool contributor Jeremy MacNealy does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.