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Microsoft Debuts New Search Technology To Tame Information Overload

The Windows Live Search client hunts across the desktop, intranet, and Internet in Microsoft's fight against Google.
Bill Gates on Wednesday introduced new enterprise information management software to shield workers from the information explosion caused in no small part by the popularity of his company's previous products.

The answer to information overload and underload -- Gates's term for the lack of tools to process information -- goes beyond the need for better search software. "What’s required is a comprehensive approach to enterprise information management that spans information creation, collection and use and helps ensure that organizations can unlock the full value of their investments in both information and people," Gates said in an executive E-mail published today on Microsoft's Web site.

Search -- and by implication Google -- is not enough for today's information worker, Gates said in an address at its annual CEO Summit. Nonetheless, the new technology that Microsoft announced at today's event centered on search.

First, Microsoft said it planned to unify its search systems with the introduction of Windows Live Search client software. The search application offers a single view of Microsoft's three major search systems -- Windows Desktop Search for the desktop, SharePoint for intranets, and MSN Search/Windows Live for the Web.

"The Windows Live Search client sits on top of all that and brings in results from all those sources," says Justin Chandoo, senior product manager for SharePoint at Microsoft. A beta release should be available this summer.

The fact that Microsoft is touting a single search interface is somewhat ironic given Microsoft co-president of platforms & services Kevin Johnson's insistence that "Information workers tell us they need more than an Internet search box."

Second, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 gained a new feature called Knowledge Network for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007. It's an automated search technology that helps expose undocumented knowledge and relationships in companies by scanning users' documents and, subject to user approval, making that data available to colleagues. A company spokesperson expects a SharePoint beta with this feature will be available next week.

Finally, the company announced Microsoft Office SharePoint Server for Search 2007, a search-centric, upgradeable subset of its popular SharePoint server product aimed at midmarket and departmental enterprise customers who want to search corporate data sources such as network drives, Web sites, SharePoint sites, Exchange Server, and Lotus Notes. Using an infrastructure component called Business Data Catalog, SharePoint Server for Search can find both structured and unstructured data in a variety of applications using third-party connectors. Siebel and SAP are supported out of the box. SharePoint Server for Search 2007 should be available later this year.

Though Gates mentioned Google in passing, today's announcements show Microsoft moving aggressively counter Google's forays inside the firewall. "Microsoft is clearly entering the lower end of the market to combat Google," Andrew McKay, VP of product marketing at enterprise search vendor Fast Search & Transfer, said in an E-mail.

In an interview with InformationWeek earlier this year, Bill Gates identified the ability to access data from third-party enterprise apps as one of Microsoft's competitive advantages over Google. "The most revolutionary thing with SharePoint here in its search is that it's not restricted just to the document world, we connect up to the structured world," Gates said, in a comment not published in the original interview.

In mid-April, that edge was dulled somewhat when Google introduced its OneBox API, a protocol that allows Google's enterprise search hardware to index corporate data repositories. However, IDC analyst Sue Feldman observes that OneBox requires individual keyword queries to be mapped to specific commands in enterprise apps, a process that large enterprises might not want to undertake on a large scale.

Despite Google's recent success in the corporate market, Gates's point that there's more to enterprise computing that Google remains valid. In addition to being able to find information, business users need to be able to do things with it. And Microsoft's diverse set of applications, running atop a search platform that spans the desktop, the Internet, and the intranet, address the use and sharing of information in a way that Google can't at the moment.

"When we look at information management, we're not looking at it just from a search perspective," says Chandoo. "We're looking at information management from a find, use, and share perspective."

Then again, Google is something of a straw man in the context of information management. Microsoft's competition there comes from the likes of EMC, HP, IBM, Oracle, and a host of others. And it remains to be seen whether Microsoft, or anyone else for that matter, can harness the deluge of information so as to simultaneously raise productivity and lower the stress of those drowning in data.