Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Microsoft's ruling in Europe spells uncertainty in search

Analysts and observers have long predicted that Microsoft could rule the Web search world -- now dominated by Google and Yahoo -- with a tool that is a ubiquitous part of its market-leading operating system.

The European Commission's decision to force Microsoft to ``unbundle'' its media player from Windows raises questions about the software maker's plans to integrate search technology into its next operating system.

But Wednesday's ruling clouds that picture, raising the specter of antitrust complaints about the company's efforts to integrate such a tool into Windows.

``The big question is how precedent-setting'' the decision is, said Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research. ``We've got a precedent that says . . . bundling is not acceptable in some circumstances. If it could apply to media player, it could be applied to other technologies.''

Microsoft's MSN Search holds third place in market share, behind Yahoo and Google. But the company now has at least three research projects devoted to search technology.

One program, called ``Stuff I've Seen,'' employs a search box in the task bar that helps people quickly track down anything they've ever viewed, including e-mail messages, address book contacts, office documents and Web pages.

In a report last month, Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li said such a tool could allow Microsoft to strike ``a winning blow'' in the search wars.

But search expert Danny Sullivan said Microsoft's new approach appears to switch the Web search function out of the browser and into the operating system, a change many users may balk at.

Sullivan, editor of the Web site Search Engine Watch, noted that Microsoft already tries to drive people to its MSN Search page through its operating system, Web browser and office applications, with limited success.

``Despite all these advantages, these other players have thrived,'' Sullivan said. ``That would be an interesting argument to make in court, that Microsoft will wipe out these two competitors who have been kicking it around. There are three very strong players, and Microsoft is the weakest of the three.''

Sullivan said a threat might exist if Microsoft created a new stand-alone search program and bundled it with its next operating system, code-named Longhorn.

``That would pose a bigger challenge because Yahoo and Google would need to develop applications then, and that would require a download for the user,'' he said. ``But if we're talking search as we're doing search today, I don't see a problem.''

Source: Mercury News

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