Microsoft's ( MSFT) strategy in the Internet search market not surprisingly reads like a well-worn page from the behemoth's playbook: Enter the market late, copy the early entrants and bundle with other Microsoft products.

But while Microsoft's latest moves into Internet search, unveiled late Wednesday night, certainly pose a threat to industry pure plays, they will have only an incremental impact on the world's largest software maker -- at least in the short term. Rather, investors and analysts see Microsoft's search maneuver as both a defensive play against Google and a step toward the next major release of Longhorn, the Redmond giant's operating system.

"I don't want to say it's not important, but then again I don't think it's critical-critical," Alex Vallecillo, a senior portfolio manager at National City Investment Management, said of Microsoft's search business. "It's not single-handedly going to drive the fortunes of Microsoft stock one way or the other."

Microsoft stock reflected this attitude, barely moving Thursday on the company's two-pronged Internet search announcement. Shares of Microsoft closed up 7 cents, or 0.3%, at $28.63. The news caused more damage to search engine rivals, with Yahoo! ( YHOO) shares, also pressured by an analyst downgrade, closing down $2.10, or 5.8%, to $34.30; and Ask Jeeves ( ASKJ) shares falling $3.35, or 8.6%, to close at $35.68.

Late Wednesday, Microsoft debuted a new, streamlined look for MSN search that looks remarkably similar to Google's uncluttered home page. That service is still using Yahoo!'s search technology.

And on another site, sandbox.msn.com, Microsoft offered the first sneak peek of its own new algorithmic search engine still under development. That service, expected to formally launch by the end of the year, was spotty Thursday, perhaps from too many users. A simple search for "polar bear" repeatedly came up with an error message, while other searches took several seconds to return results.

Although Microsoft is clearly late to the search engine game, that may not be important in what is increasingly becoming a commodity business, as one buy-side analyst suggested.

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