Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Microsoft Search to be Pervasive

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MSN’s homegrown search technology will make its way into the broad range of products, a Microsoft executive said. But the company plans to avoid the bundling issue.

MSN product manager Justin Osmer said the technology will be pervasive throughout Microsoft’s products. Osmer sat down with internetnews.com at the Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago.

MSN is developing two search technologies in parallel: MSN Web Search and MSN Desktop Search. For the Web product, MSN’s algorithmic engine was built from the ground up in 18 months with contributions from Microsoft Research. The desktop search tool, on the other hand, is part of the toolbar project for Internet Explorer, which debuted a year ago and went live in March.

Osmer said that while ideally the desktop search tool and what is now offered at beta.search.msn.com would ship as final versions at the same time, it’s not likely to happen that way, because they’re separate projects. “They’re two different animals, unique in the constructs,” he said.

The development team began with some baseline code from the SharePoint server products and from Microsoft Research. “We took that shell, made it unique to us for the client environment, added bells and whistles, and integrated it into the toolbar suite.”

“We believe it makes more sense to have [desktop search] based in the client environment,” Osmer said. “From both the security standpoint and user testing, we found that when I’m looking for something on my PC, I want to be on my PC, and I don’t want a bunch of Web results clogging my PC.” He added that there are safety implications in caching or indexing previously viewed Web pages, as Google Desktop Search does, so MSN chosen not to do that.

Another reason the team chose to place desktop search in the Windows client is that it allowed the application to take advantage of the Windows login feature. On a computer with multiple users, each user will only be able to research his own files. Google’s desktop search was criticized for making it too easy for others to search through a person’s hard drive, and on Monday, Google said it had patched a flaw in the desktop tool that could have given hackers access to desktop files.

“It’s unique for Microsoft to have a division offering betas that are not fully baked or 100 percent finished,” Osmer said. “We’re getting more used to it.” While developers are used to working with technical releases and reporting on bugs, the general public, which is the market for MSN Search, is not, so Microsoft is working hard to get consumers to understand that the product isn’t exactly perfect.

In fact, the search beta site crashed the first morning it was live. Osmer said he was surprised that the crash took place the very first morning, but not that it had crashed at all. “That’s why it’s a beta,” he said.

MSN will pull the beta search site down for a half-hour weekly or even once a day to tune it or add to it. But Osmer promised that it wouldn’t stay in beta for long.

“Some people release the beta for long periods of time,” he said. “That’s not our model. We want to have it in beta long enough to collect user feedback and make sure whatever we turn into the final meets certain criteria, but we want it to be as short as possible.”

Osmer said the beta period is designed to get feedback on not only what works but on what users want. For example, the beta search includes a Search Builder, which lets users fine-tune the relevance criteria. “We’ll see if consumers actually use them,” he said. If they don’t, MSN is prepared to dump features.

Once MSN Search goes live, the search team plans to deliver APIs that will let others build applications and services on top of it, Osmer said. It’s a model that’s proven highly successful for online retailers eBay and Amazon.com , as well as for Yahoo Shopping.

Microsoft is under the supervision of the U.S. Federal Court and appealing a European Union antitrust ruling for including Windows Media Player in Windows. It’s legal fight in Europe was dealt a blow today when a judge refused to suspend penalties during Microsoft’s appeal.

Microsoft is developing its next-generation Windows, code-named Longhorn, and, in parallel, a new file system, WinFS, that will allow users to easily search for all kinds of files — as the desktop search

tool does. The company hopes to avoid the Media Player’s problems with MSN search, Osmer said.

“It’s not our intention to have the toolbar suite preinstalled on anything,” he said.

It will remain something that users must download separately. Neither will there be a pre-installed product in the browser

or desktop flagged as MSN Search.

“However,” Osmer added, “the technology behind [search] is a cross-company effort right now,” and it’s already being used

in a number of Microsoft products. “The technology will be important to Microsoft across the board,” he said. “The search

effort has helped the company to reinvigorate search.”

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