Magazine article Newsweek

For Softies, Search Is the New Black; Microsoft's Ace in the Hole Is the Ability to Put Its Search Tools in Windows and Office

Magazine article Newsweek

For Softies, Search Is the New Black; Microsoft's Ace in the Hole Is the Ability to Put Its Search Tools in Windows and Office

Article excerpt

Byline: Steven Levy

Bill Gates has a Google thing. When I asked him about the search competition last summer, he turned on the sarcasm. "We'll never be as cool as them . Every conference you go to, there they are dressed in black, and no one is cooler!" Clearly Gates's dander was up, not only because the Google upstarts were eating his lunch, but they were press darlings as well. Behind the rant was a taunting subtext: watch me . Bill, you see, had been busy figuring how to get his lunch back.

The first fruits of Gates's response are now ripe enough to consume. The beta version of MSN Web Search debuted in November, and this week MSN Desktop Search comes online. Though neither threatens to topple Google's reign, both are credible products. Not bad for an 18-month crash course in an area that the company had previously neglected with the complacency only a monopolist can muster. "It wasn't clear to me that we could catch up in that time frame," says MSN head Yusuf Mehdi.

I recently visited Microsoft's search geeks in their trenches and discovered a canonical Redmond jihad, fueled by "supersmart people who are really hungry," says search GM Ken Moss. Yet it follows the company's time-honored software-development traditions, including constant benchmarking, relentless user testing and unsparing reviews from Bill himself. Instead of snaring established search superstars (who weren't exactly eager to be hired), Mehdi and his search czar, Christopher Payne, tapped bright lights in-house. Some were diverted from Microsoft's stalled Longhorn Windows update. Other key contributors came from Microsoft Research.

It wasn't easy. For a while the new "crawler" that searched the Net to gather information could find only 24 Web pages. Ultimately that increased to millions, but when the total went to a billion pages there was another snag. …

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