About 10 years of development work on information retrieval at Microsoft Corp.s Research division is culminating, with many technologies about to find their way into products.
Microsoft Research teams in Beijing; Cambridge, England; and Redmond, Wash., have been working on search for years. But, recently, the research and product teams have been working together to build that technology into the MSN.com search engine and “Longhorn,” the next version of the Windows client, which is expected to ship by the end of 2006.
“Whats new is the fact that for things like Web search, we now have a product group that we can talk to, whereas before, Microsoft wasnt focused in that area on the product side,” said Rick Rashid, Microsofts senior vice president for research, in an exclusive interview at the Web 2.0 conference this month in San Francisco.
Microsoft officials confirmed that the company plans to launch its desktop search product by years end.
Meanwhile, MSN is moving forward with plans to launch its algorithmic search technology. MSN plans to combine desktop search of e-mail messages and files with its Web search once both technologies are available. Whether that combination will occur when the desktop search product is launched remains unclear and depends on the timing of MSNs switch to its own Web search technology, also planned for as early as this year.
Some search experts such as Elizabeth Lawley, associate professor for the IT department at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in Rochester, N.Y., who has previewed the Microsoft technologies, told eWEEK that Microsoft is clearly committed to building a killer search environment and has “a lot of very smart, interesting people working on it.”
“The things we saw from [Microsoft Research] were among the most intriguing, but it remains to be seen how well-integrated into the final products those features will be and to what extent theyll retain their most interesting qualities if they do,” Lawley said. “I think it will be critical that they integrate new ways of weighing value, particularly in a social context. If they can pull something like that off—combining social technologies and search technologies—that would be pretty compelling.”
Microsoft is preparing new search technologies that will let users search seamlessly across their local machines, corporate networks and the Internet. One such project is called Stuff Ive Seen, which relies on Microsoft search to create an index of personal content, including e-mail, attachments, files, Web pages, and calendar and journal entries.
Rashid said there has been a greater emphasis on new ways of thinking about how to bring users personal information to the search process.
“Stuff Ive Seen uses the users memory as a search context or looks at your past queries and the data that is on your hard drive as a way of qualifying Web queries to better define the search,” Rashid said. “We have looked at your previous query history as well as what documents are on your machine and what data you have.”
Microsoft Research also has completed work on Sapphire, a user interface project designed to make the search and storage of information more intuitive. Sapphire tracks everything a user does on the computer, then stores and correlates the data, Rashid said. Another research project, the Memory Lens Browser, exploits the same idea.
Although impressed, Rochesters Lawley cautioned that privacy issues around local search will still need to be solved. “While local search has value, anything that involved sending local search data to a central server would not be well-received,” she said.
Matt McMahon, executive vice president of Fathom Online Corp., a search engine marketer in San Francisco, said: “Consumers are wary of spyware, spammers and anything else that has the appearance of using their personal information for others gain. The lessons we have learned from search engines and search marketing are that the consumer wants to be in control and does not want personal intrusions.”
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