At the moment, Microsoft's MSN Web portal uses Yahoo's search engine.
Microsoft has promised that its search engine would have internally developed algorithms and an index built by its own spiders and that it would be live this year. Twice this year it has shown working versions on its Sandbox site, where visitors can test new technologies.
Microsoft will be entering a field packed with extraordinary competition.
"Microsoft's biggest challenge is gaining mind share," said Gary Price with SearchEngineWatch.com. "Google is so damn good at building and keeping mind share that Microsoft's technology could be wonderful and it'll still have a challenge getting people to look at it."
Although Microsoft remained mum on details of MSN Search--a spokesperson declined to comment early Wednesday, saying all "MSN Search beta coverage is speculation"--Price said detective work late last month gave him some idea of what features the new engine might have.
While using the MSN Search preview, Price followed the trail of cached pages to a Microsoft page-caching server. There he found hints of the features that MSN might include. The search page on the caching server is now offline, but Price has posted screenshots and descriptions in a blog on SearchEngineWatch.com.
Among the features he spotted was a top-of-the-page link labeled "PC." Although that link reverted to the MSN toolbar when Price found it on the page-caching server, "this could be where they'll offer up some type of desktop search tool," he wrote in the blog.
It's possible that Microsoft will release desktop search along with the beta of MSN Search, since Microsoft has promised it would soon offer tools for searching local hard drives. Google's already beaten Microsoft to the punch here as well. Last month it released a beta edition of Google Desktop Search.
Other MSN Search hints that Price found in scouring the caching server included a trio of sliders for manipulating page rankings and something called "search builder," which lets people add search terms, and limit searches by domain or language.
But Price isn't bullish on Microsoft's ability to unseat Google. "Google's just done so many things right," he said, "and, frankly, it was at the right place at the right time, too. Getting people to switch, that's going to be a challenge. Most people are completely satisfied with Google."