Microsoft launches new search engine to challenge Google

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The Independent Online
TO GOOGLE has passed into modern usage as a verb that means to look something up on the internet. Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder, was hoping yesterday that we will soon be talking about MSN Searching instead.

While its name might not trip off the tongue, Mr Gates launched his new search engine with a huge fanfare, replacing the existing Yahoo! service which comes as standard with Microsoft's msn.co.uk and unveiling a redesigned home page.

But it has a lot of catching up to do. In Britain, Google commands 60 per cent of all online inquiries, while just over 10 per cent goes through the Microsoft search engine.

Microsoft has been remarkably successful at clawing back its position after falling behind rivals in other aspects of emerging technology, such as web browsers. It is crucial that it also does so with its search engine - which the company believes will allow it to "control its own destiny" - but it faces strong competition not just from Google, but Yahoo! and Ask Jeeves.

MSN Search was launched simultaneously in 24 countries and 10 languages. Its weapon is the ability to access Microsoft's Encarta encyclopaedia, with its 1.4 million entries. This allows users to ask direct questions such as, what is the world's largest lake?

The new Microsoft search engine has been under trial in recent months. The company believes it can loosen the Google stranglehold by slimming down the number of websites it offers for each inquiry and by fashioning it more closely to meet each user's needs.

Matt Whittingham, head of information services at MSN, said: "I think consumers, maybe two years ago, were wowed by the fact that you could enter a relatively obscure search term and you would get hundreds of thousands of results. In fact, there is perhaps too much information out there and what consumers want is results that are tailored to them. They want search engines to be a bit smarter, to know where they are geographically."

Microsoft believes its search engine will also be more up to date, refreshing its list of about five billion websites every two days compared with every two weeks in other cases.

Google, whose creators Sergei Brin and Larry Page became billionaires when the company they founded was floated on the stock market last year, makes its money through sponsored links - ads which appear on screen when an inquiry is made.

The company, based in Mountain View, said yesterday that it earned $204.1m in the final three months of 2004, compared with net income of $27.3m for the same period in 2003. Revenue during the last three months of 2004 was $1.03bn, more than double the $512.2m for the same period during the previous year. Despite its revenue jump, Google's total was only about a tenth of Microsoft's, which reported a figure of $10.8bn for the same period.

Mr Gates, said to be worth pounds 26.7bn, was meeting European commissioners in Brussels yesterday to try to resolve an anti-trust ruling against him which resulted in a Û500m (pounds 350m) fine last year. The EU competition commissioner, Mario Monti, ruled that Microsoft was abusing the monopoly position it enjoyed with its Windows operating system, found in 90 per cent of personal computers worldwide. It was ordered to strip down the Microsoft products it offered as standard with Windows, removing Media Player. Microsoft is in talks on how this Windows should be sold to the public.

TEST DRIVE

V What is the population of Peru? MSN Search had an instant answer: 28,863,494. Google provided 2,600,00 possible sites. Top of the list was an outdated 26m.

V What is the deepest ocean? MSN is instant: the Pacific Ocean, maximum 10,924m. Google's first offer misses the mark while its second reports the same answer.

V How rich is Bill Gates? MSN has nothing. Google shows a real-time Bill Gates personal wealth clock. It calculates how much each US citizen has contributed to it ($203.03).

V Who was the world's first female prime minister?

Google was right first time, identifying Sirimavo Bandaranaike - elected in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1960 - in 0.06 seconds. It was also top on MSN which took 1.47 seconds to find it.

VHow long is a furlong? The answer - 220 yards - was 11th in MSN ranking and first on Google.

VWho are Larry Page and Sergei Brin?

Both sites turned immediately to Google's own corporate information page to identify its founders.

Conclusion: 3-2 to Google; don't ask MSN about Gates.

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