Call it the Xerox ( XRX) effect. When your competitor's product is so well known it becomes a verb (as in "please Xerox that article for me"), you know you're in trouble.

Nowhere is that truer than in the world of Web searches. After all, users trolling the vastness of the Web will invariably say "I'm going to Google that" no matter which search engine they actual use. Ever heard someone say "I'm going to MSN that?"

Attempting to knock Google ( GOOG) off its throne is the job of Susan Dumais of Microsoft's ( MSFT) Research division, who this week presented three papers at a conference on information retrieval at the University of Washington hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery.

"It is astounding that we can find anything at all on the Internet -- it contains 20 billion pages," says Dumais, who carries the title of principal researcher and is one of the dozens of Microsoft researches focused on search technology.

It's one thing, she says, to know that a user clicks on a page during a search. But it's much more useful to find out how long he or she lingered and what they did next. Did they print it or save it or simply move on?

"It's not just about a little rectangle on the screen," she said in a telephone interview during the conference.

Collecting that type of information means collecting millions upon millions of data points and then analyzing them using very high-powered computers and machine-learning techniques. (Machine learning is the study of computer algorithms that improve automatically through experience.)

One of the papers presented in Seattle focuses on the ranking of search results. Search engines typically display results by date, which may or may not be useful. So, Dumais is looking for ways to teach a search engine to take into account previous Web or desktop searches. Even better might be a search engine that examines content already indexed on a user's PC and returns results with that in "mind."

A major drawback of existing searches is the inability of the engines to incorporate much information in a query. Dumais says "users know a lot about what they are looking for. Searches should take a much richer context into account." That will change in the future, she says.

Unlike pure research labs at old-style tech companies, Microsoft's research arm works closely with product groups. In January, the company formed LiveLabs, a partnership of Microsoft Research and MSN, designed to move ideas about search from the labs to the marketplace. The head of LiveLabs now reports directly to Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie, a sign of the company's heavy emphasis on search.

The search team has worked closely with the Windows Live Search and Windows Desktop Search team, and the fruit of that collaboration will begin to become apparent when Vista, the new version of Windows, and Office 2007, go public.

One of the major gripes that users have with Microsoft's existing search is that it doesn't do a good job finding anything that isn't part of a Word document. Indeed, until fairly recently, it wasn't possible to search emails, PDF Web pages and other file types at all using Windows. That capability is built into the Windows Desktop search tool, but still leaves a lot to be desired.

"We've been focusing on people's ability to find things they've seen before," said Dumais. Vista and Office will have richer search capabilities built in, and they'll be much easier to use. Search boxes, she says, will become ubiquitous. Users don't want to jump from application to application when they need to search, she says.

Vista will do a much better job of indexing across different types of files, including photos. (Vista won't search on the image, however. It will allow users to add information to the photo file that can be searched on later.)

Dumais figures that major improvements in search technology are only a few years out. Getting people to stop saying Google when they mean search, however, may take a lot longer.

How Much Is That Zune in the Window?

An unconfirmed report in This Week In Consumer Electronics says that Microsoft plans to sell the Zune, the company's answer to Apple's ( AAPL) popular iPod music player, for $299. Articles on other sites also claim that the launch date has been set for Nov. 14.

If true, the Zune would be roughly comparable to the iPod; both players have a capacity of 30GBs although the Zune reportedly will have a larger screen.

Retailers who have been briefed by Microsoft said the player will offer WiFi capability, but will require that the portable be connected to a PC for the actual purchase of songs, according to the consumer-electronics publication.

Microsoft did not comment on the report.

Early Indicators

Tech investors will get a much better fix on the hoped-for second-half surge next week when four important companies report earnings. The key, says Goldman Sachs analyst Laura Conigliaro, is Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ), which reports Wednesday, along with Network Appliance ( NTAP). Brocade ( BRCD) and Dell ( DELL) follow on Thursday.

Conigliaro, who rates H-P a buy, says the company's software business is likely to improve once it digests recently acquired Mercury Interactive ( MERQ), and the storage business "already sounds more competitive, with H-P's pricing power making it more difficult for competitors to continue to take share from it."

Goldman Sachs has investment banking business with H-P and Mercury.


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