Microsoft searches toward the future

During a showcase of future technologies, the software giant underscores the importance of search in the company's upcoming developments.

BEIJING--Judging by its showcase of future technologies, Microsoft is clearly steering its focus strongly toward search, an area which the software vendor admits it is still lagging behind.
"Steve Ballmer kicked our butts and said we have to catch up in particular research areas, including search."
-- Harry Shum
Microsoft Research Asia

At the annual Microsoft Research Asia (MRA) Innovation Day, held here this week, the software giant displayed next-generation technologies from its Asian research center where at least 10 out of 30 showcases were search-related.

Microsoft has similar research facilities in India, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom, which aim to develop new technology for the company's future products. So far, 201 technology projects have been incorporated into offerings such as Office 2003 and Windows Vista, according to Microsoft.

In an interview with ZDNet Asia, Harry Shum, managing director of MRA, acknowledged that the software vendor still lags behind competitors Yahoo and Google in the search space.

"[Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer kicked our butts and said we have to catch up in particular research areas, including search," he said. However, Shum was undaunted by the rivalry in the search business.

"As research guys, we welcome challenges," he said. "We take the competition very seriously, and will make the necessary investment to get to the top [of the search market]."

Microsoft spends some 17 percent of its revenues each year on research and development, totaling US$6 billion, according to the vendor's CTO Craig Mundie.

And some of that money has gone into solving the biggest problem with search engines today--staying relevant.

Ma Wei-Ying, MRA's research manager for Web search and data mining, said internal Microsoft studies have shown that search users hardly venture beyond the third page of search engine results, which are often irrelevant to what they are actually seeking.

"People do not have the patience to look through all the results pages," he added. "Search engines need to be more intelligent and provide exact answers right on the first page of search results."

The key to providing accurate and relevant search results is vertical search, which Ma described as single-purpose search engines that trawl the Web for a category of information. This may include academic papers, which Microsoft's Live Academic Search currently addresses, or products for sale at online shopping sites, he said.

Ma noted that Microsoft's product search engine, due to debut in a few weeks, would allow users to search for merchandise across online stores, beyond the likes of Amazon and Shopping.com.

He added that Microsoft will also be unveiling new methods of searching such as Photo2Search, where images--instead of text--captured with cellphones are used as search queries.

According to Microsoft, Photo2Search users can seek information on an object by taking a photo of it and sending the image, via e-mail or MMS (multimedia messaging service), to a Web-based server.

The system then searches an image database for relevant matches, and delivers the information--whether it is a Web page featuring the object or data associated with the object--to the user. Upon receiving the data, Photo2Search users can then choose how to make use of the information, such as to book a hotel room or make a purchase.

Xing Xie, a researcher for MRA's Web search and mining group, led a team of five to create Photo2Search which included two academics from the University of Science and Technology of China.

Xing's team noted in a research paper that the value of camera phones as devices that are capable of capturing and acquiring information on a daily basis, "has not been sufficiently recognized" by the wireless industry and researchers.

With the necessary technologies, the Microsoft researchers believe that mobile phones could become powerful tools to acquire information about the surrounding world on-the-go.

However, Microsoft will have to work with existing infrastructures to deliver services over the Web, while Google was able to start on a clean slate. Asked if he considered this a disadvantage, Microsoft's Shum said: "I'm not sure if that will continue to be true, because by now, [Google] probably has more baggage than we do. We probably started even fresher in terms of search."

He noted that while "it's good now to be Google, which is so popular and successful", Microsoft has a good platform and it is "up to the company to ensure its products stay relevant".

Aaron Tan from ZDNet Asia reported from Beijing, China.

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