Microsoft plans to use mashups to leverage search technology


Microsoft Corp. hopes that taking a page out of its old playbook can help the company cut into Google Inc.’s thus-far insurmountable lead in the search market.

Microsoft plans to ramp up its efforts to encourage Web developers and other programmers to create mashups — quickly assembled Web-based programs gluing together different data and technology sources — that leverage the software vendor’s search technology, including its flagship Windows Live Search engine and its Virtual Earth mapping and location service.

The company got the ball rolling at its 2007 MVP Global Summit here yesterday, inviting attendees from the ranks of its Most Valuable Professional program to write mashup applications together during an afternoon-long event.

Microsoft’s overall market dominance has long been credited in large part to its success at wooing outside programmers to write software bolstering Windows and its other products.

But in the Web 2.0 market, Microsoft lags behind rivals such as Google because it has been less successful at encouraging the development of mashups using its application programming interfaces (API), acknowledged Jonathan Pincus, general manager of strategy development for Microsoft’s online services group.

Pincus said he thinks that by publicizing the company’s various open APIs and offering third-party developers technical support as well as help in coming up with ways for them to make money via advertising or value-added services, Microsoft can make Live Search as attractive a development platform as Windows and Office are.

In Microsoft’s vision, the resulting mashups would become ancillary services that augment Live Search’s core features and help the search engine provide better results to users. “There are many ways to find the answer to a question besides simply searching for it,” Pincus said.

For instance, during an internal “Mashup Day” brainstorming event last fall, a Microsoft employee proposed combining the company’s database of 120 million Windows Live Spaces users with Live Search so that users of the search engine could also pose their queries to people on the Live Spaces social networking site who have opted in to sharing their expertise.

Pincus said Microsoft developers have created a “search macro” mashup that lets users search only the content of their favorite and most trusted Web sites. Another internally developed mashup overlays one map on top of a second one so users can see how bike trails in Seattle intersect with bus routes.

Still another mashup, which Pincus called “the Partycrasher,” lets users get information about parties that are going on in their neighborhoods by combining Evite invitations with Virtual Earth mapping and the Live Spaces database.

Robert Bogue, a Microsoft SharePoint MVP from Indianapolis who attended yesterday’s mashup development event at the MVP Summit, said he sees some promise in Microsoft’s strategy. Bogue uses Google to do most of his text searches, but he said he prefers Virtual Earth’s ability to show actual 3-D views of mapped locations over the flat, top-down views of Google Maps and other mapping technologies. Microsoft needs to try something. Earlier this month, an analyst at UBS Investment Research said that Microsoft has been losing ground to both Google and Yahoo Inc. in online search revenue and the number of queries being processed. According to UBS, Microsoft’s share of the worldwide search query market fell from 11 percent to 8 percent between August 2005 and last December, while Google’s share rose from 56 percent to 65 percent.

And in an internal memo sent to Microsoft employees last Sunday night, Kevin Johnson, president of the company’s platforms and services division, wrote that Christopher Payne is resigning from his job as corporate vice president in charge of the Live Search team to start a business of his own.

At the MVP Summit, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates acknowledged the company’s search difficulties during a one-hour Q&A session with attendees after his keynote speech Tuesday morning.

Asked how Microsoft hopes to convince users to switch to Live Search, Gates said the questioner was “absolutely right. We’re No. 3. It’s not a position we’re used to being in, so clearly it’s a trend we’re committed to reverse.”

Besides wooing developers, Microsoft is investing heavily in its core search technology and in extra services, such as one that would give users rebates from merchants that they find through the Live Search engine, Gates said. “Believe me, we are putting brilliant, brilliant people into search,” he added.

Pincus firmly believes that Google’s lead on mashups remains tenuous. Google doesn’t actively reach out to developers, he claimed, saying that he doesn’t expect it to start doing so for another year or two, no matter what Microsoft does.

But to make real headway on mashups, Microsoft can’t just replicate the tactics that it uses to woo developers of conventional Windows applications. For one thing, Microsoft needs to give its full blessing to developers that want to create mashups combining Microsoft’s technology with a competitor’s.

“In terms of geocoding, Yahoo has a very accessible API,” Pincus said. “People could easily combine that with Virtual Earth, because the essence of Web services is that things should be able to play well together.” He added that Microsoft needs to “get out of our comfort zone and overcome our fear of looking stupid.”


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