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Despite Yahoo drama, Microsoft forges ahead with search

Despite Yahoo drama, Microsoft forges ahead with search

Microsoft forges ahead with enterprise and Internet search plans even as Yahoo bid remains uncertain.

Microsoft is pushing ahead with plans to expand its enterprise and Internet search offerings even as its quest to purchase Yahoo remains uncertain and could get uglier.

On Wednesday, Fast Search and Transfer (FAST), an enterprise search company that Microsoft said it would acquire in January, added personalisation to its existing search product and divulged more details about how Microsoft will use the technology.

Microsoft is also prepping a new release of its Live Search online offering, code-named Rome, which was revealed in an SEC document filed as part of the Yahoo bid but which Microsoft declined to discuss in more detail.

The company's entire search strategy will likely be disrupted if it's successful in its pursuit of Yahoo. Microsoft seems intent on closing the deal whether Yahoo's board of directors likes it or not; Microsoft is reportedly going to mount a proxy fight for Yahoo in which it would attempt to remove Yahoo's board members, who rejected Microsoft's $US44.6 billion buyout offer.

"There are a lot of moving pieces here," an analyst with NPD Group, Chris Swenson, said about Microsoft's recent moves in the search market.

Despite this, Microsoft's plan for FAST, the acquisition of which should be finalised in April or May, seems to be taking shape.

On Wednesday, FAST's Zia Zaman, executive vice-president of global marketing for the Oslo, Norway-based company, unveiled a new category of software that FAST is developing called interaction management, and a new product under that umbrella called the FAST Personalization Framework. The framework adds the type of personalisation technology found on consumer websites, such as Amazon.com, that suggests products and services based on previous choices.

Zaman said this kind of personalisation, which FAST acquired through its purchase of San Francisco-based AgentArts, could be a powerful tool for enterprise search. A pharmaceutical researcher developing a new drug, for example, could find valuable information if a search tool delivers not only directly relevant results, but other results related to that information, he said.

"There is a lot of cool information within the four walls" that researchers may not even know they're looking for until it appears before them, he said. And FAST's search technology also searches outside the firewall to find the most relevant information, which also can be personalised through the new framework, Zaman added.

Once the Microsoft acquisition closes, FAST will act as a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft and maintain much of its current operations, he said. The company will report to the SharePoint team, which is part of the business unit that also includes Microsoft Office. SharePoint is the portal component of Microsoft's collaboration strategy for Office; it also links in to Microsoft's back-end CRM and ERP applications and is part of the company's larger business-intelligence strategy.

SharePoint already lets workers search across company projects hosted through the product. FAST's technology is expected to enhance and expand the search capabilities in SharePoint, Zaman said.

For online users, Microsoft offered a new version of Live Search last September and recently updated its search algorithm to improve its ability to crawl Web sites after the company identified an indexing problem. According to the SEC filing, Microsoft is already at work on another major update code-named Rome, and it will move "full steam ahead" no matter what happens with Yahoo, according to comments Steve Ballmer made during an employee meeting about the Yahoo bid.

"We've got to drive ahead with our Rome release of search, we've got to get in the market, destination search, Windows Live Wave 3, etc.," Ballmer said, according to the filing.

Despite the SEC filing, Microsoft won't acknowledge Rome's existence. Through an email from its public relations firm, the company said it won't comment on "speculation about internal code names."

NPD's Swenson said that if the Yahoo deal doesn't go through, Microsoft could choose to use the FAST acquisition to bolster not only its enterprise search offerings but also its Internet search. If the deal does go though, it will become more complicated as to which search technology will be applied where, he said.

Despite the downside of having to combine so many search technologies, buying Yahoo would offer Microsoft a host of new opportunities to expand both its Internet and enterprise search efforts, Swenson added.

Zaman said Microsoft and FAST are still ironing out exactly where -- outside of SharePoint and a standalone enterprise search offering -- FAST's technology will be put to use. Enhancing Live Search is a possibility, he said, but there are no specific plans for that yet.


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