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5/17/2004
01:48 PM
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Microsoft Looks For Gold In Search

It's taking on a market dominated by Google with a broad-based push that includes Windows and MSN.

SEATTLE (AP) -- When it comes to the latest technology craze, Microsoft Corp. isn't known for being first or best: It's known for being biggest.

The software behemoth has used its strength, money and reach to go from underdog to top dog on everything from Internet browsers to digital content players.

Now, its attention turns to the growing field of search, with a broad-based push that extends from its dominant Windows operating system to its MSN online division.

Google Inc. currently dominates Internet search, something analysts say could pose problems for Microsoft--and not only because Google takes away advertising dollars.

The popularity and simple, alluring user interfaces of the best search sites threaten to reduce the control that Microsoft maintains over people's computing experience through popular products like the Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser.

Plus, as the amount of digital information explodes, Microsoft also recognizes that computing today is not just about creating work documents, E-mails, and pictures of your sister's new puppy--it's also about finding all that later.

"I think Microsoft has certainly realized ... that if you can't find it, it doesn't do you any good at all," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group.

Microsoft efforts are so sweeping that painting its strategy as a simple matchup with Google is a "narrow, narrow way of looking at it," said Jim Desler, a Microsoft spokesman.

Microsoft has conceded its own missteps in search--most notably the decision to rely on an outside company to provide consumer search functions for MSN. Building its own may have given it a better competitive edge.

About 42 percent of U.S. Web users went to Google's search engine in March, compared with 31 percent for Yahoo and 29 percent for MSN, according to Nielsen/Net Ratings.

Microsoft is racing to play catch-up, a typical approach whenever it perceives a threat, said David Smith, vice president of Internet strategy with Gartner Group.

Microsoft plans to unveil its own Internet search technology this year after seeing what MSN director Lisa Gurry termed the "amazing" consumer demand and the moneymaking potential.

At first, Microsoft plans to use its new technology only for Internet searches based on relevance, replacing Inktomi, now owned by rival Yahoo! Inc. Microsoft will continue to work with Overture Services, another Yahoo subsidiary, for the paid listings that run alongside regular search results.

Microsoft also is gradually unveiling a news search product, called NewsBot, similar to Google's news offering, which uses software to sort news stories based on relevance. Other technologies being developed include BlogBot, to search Web journals, and AnswerBot to better answer questions posed in plain English.

Eventually, Gurry said, Microsoft hopes to make search more personalized. For example, the search engine would use past behavior to guess whether a user who types in "Saturn" is looking for the planet or the car.

Such record-keeping evokes complex privacy issues that Gurry concedes still must be worked out. And such issues illustrate what Gartner's Smith said may be Google's key advantage over Microsoft.

"It's not just technology, it's trust," Smith said. "Google is trusted, and Microsoft is not as trusted."

Microsoft also says that search will be a key component of its next version of Windows, dubbed Longhorn, which isn't expected until at least 2006.

In the current Windows operating system, it's easy to get lost in a web of directories and subdirectories or to become daunted by the prospect of sorting through thousands of pictures identified only by meaningless numbers.

The new system is being designed to easily find data from different sources--say, a Word document, a picture and an E-mail about the same event--regardless of where it is stored, lead product manager Greg Sullivan said.

Other products also have search improvements. The company's latest Sharepoint Portal Server software for businesses added ways for workers in large companies to find other employees who are working on a similar project or have needed information.

Among the search projects being explored in Microsoft's research arm is "Stuff I've Seen," which aims to help people find data they had previously looked at, regardless of whether the information was online or on a computer, or when it had been seen.

A newer project, "Stuff I Should See," looks at data a user has seen and tries to guess what else that person might find relevant. Meanwhile, MSR Media Browser would find digital photos of a loved one based on face recognition software.

Of course, Microsoft isn't alone in thinking about ways to expand beyond Web search--and win over more users. For instance, Google Labs, which Google calls its "technology playground," is pursuing a personalized search tool and a system that would permit searches by voice instead of the keyboard.

But while Microsoft may be lagging now, analysts say Google should still be very nervous. After all, some of Microsoft's biggest successes have been in technologies it was late to develop--most notably, its now-dominant Internet Explorer browser, which trounced the original leader, Netscape Navigator.

"When Microsoft turns its attention to an industry or a market, it's proven (to have) done a remarkably good job in catching up and taking a leadership role," said Niki Scevak, an analyst with Jupiter Research. "So in terms of past experience ... I would say it's never too late."

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