SEATTLE - In its latest bid to catch up with rivals Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. is launching a revamped Internet search engine it says will help computer users find information faster, view it more easily and organize it better.
Debuting in test form Wednesday, Windows Live Search is Microsoft's latest move in a major strategy shift that has the world's largest software company focusing more heavily on Internet-based software and services.
The goal of the shift, which includes initiatives dubbed Windows Live and Office Live, is to create online products to complement its main cash cows: the Windows operating system and Office business software.
Windows Live Search will power queries on live.com, Microsoft's Windows Live Web site, beginning Wednesday. Once the technology has been fully tested, Windows Live Search will replace the existing search engine that powers MSN.com. MSN spokesman Adam Sohn said the company has not determined how long it will run Windows Live Search as a test.
A key goal with the new search engine will be to give people more control over how they search for information and how they put it to use once they get it, said Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of information services at MSN, the division that's working on Windows Live.
"A lot of people think, 'Hey,... Didn't Google become the popular search engine? And don't they just do a great job? And there's no room for improvement.'" Mehdi said. Once people get a feel for Windows Live Search, Mehdi said, "They're going to say, 'Holy cow, I had no idea that search could get this much better!'"
The new search engine includes features such as support for tabbed Web browsing, which lets people keep several search panes open in a single window. Microsoft said other features will include:
-A search slider bar that offers previews of data in various forms, perhaps just the Internet address of a Web site, or maybe a snippet of text. As the slider is adjusted, more or less information appears.
-A "smart scroll" function that displays all search results at once rather than on separate pages.
-Various ways to view pictures, say, as small "thumbnail" shots or full-sized images, without leaving the search page.
-An ability for users to save their search parameters as macros that can be run to perform the same search in the future. Microsoft said people will also be able to publish their search macros so people with similar interests can use them.
Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said he's not ready to make any predictions.
"Conceptually it sounds good. Execution will tell all," said Wilcox, who got an early briefing on the new search engine. Microsoft did not give analysts or reporters access to the search engine before its planned launch Wednesday.
Wilcox said Microsoft's best shot at gaining ground on its competitors is if it can make search results more relevant.
"There's something very alien about the whole keyword approach as a means of finding stuff," Wilcox said. "So if Microsoft can move away from that and actually let people ask questions, use more natural language... that could really boost the usability of search. That's the kind of thing that could put pressure on Google."
Google ended January with a 48.2 percent share of the U.S. search market and Yahoo ranked second with a 22.2 percent share, according to Nielsen/NetRatings Inc. MSN ranked third with 11 percent of the market - down slightly from a year earlier.
In another release slated for Wednesday, Microsoft said it was rolling out a new Windows Live toolbar that incorporates technology from Onfolio Inc., an Internet research and information management company it recently acquired.
Among other things, the toolbar includes a feature that will detect RSS (or Really Simple Syndication) data feeds, which a growing number of people are using to streamline news and other information they cull from the Internet.
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Windows Live: http://www.live.com/
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