02:02 AM

3.7.07 Microsoft Research focused on search

Is search broken?

Microsoft thinks that it is - at least, it concedes that MSN Search is not doing the trick (Google market share: 53.7%; MSN marketshare: 8.9%). So at TechFest - Redmond's three-day chance to show off to reporters and employees the neat tricks MS Research is working on - the word of the week is "search," says the Times' John Markoff.

Lili Cheng, a user-interface designer for the Windows Vista operating system, showed off a new service called Mix that will allow Web surfers to organize search results and easily share them. She said Mix would be released in six to nine months.

A second tool demonstrated, called Web Assistant, is intended to improve the relevance of search results and help resolve ambiguities in results that, for example, would give a user sites for both Reggie Bush and George Bush.

Microsoft is not the spiffiest when it comes to product names, but these widgets are not products yet.

Personalized Search compares web-search results with an index of content on the user's hard drive (that's generated by Desktop Search, quite similar apparently to Google Desktop). It does a neat trick, though.

Susan Dumais, a veteran Microsoft search expert, demonstrated the effectiveness of the program by searching for Michael Jordan. By culling through local information on her hard drive, the program was able to discern that she was interested in finding the Michael Jordan who is the machine-learning expert at the University of California, Berkeley, not the basketball player.

Search in the future will look nothing like today’s simple search engine interfaces, she said, adding, “If in 10 years we are still using a rectangular box and a list of results, I should be fired.”

About 7,000 employees participate in the event as well as reporters and business partners. Rick Rashid, head of MS Research, originally opposed the festival idea but he's now a fan.

“We realized we were clearly tapping an underserved community,” he said. Now the company uses the event to move technology from its research division into products.

That includes monitoring which employees visit which lectures and booths and looking for patterns, he said.