Search is Microsoft’s top mission

Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates will detail how the company is adding search capabilities in its enterprise software, emphasizing how employees waste time trying to find information.

Gates is scheduled to speak on Wednesday at a conference for corporate executives in Redmond, Washington. Among his company’s pending offerings is a new search tool in Office SharePoint Server 2007 that will peer deep into workers’ computers, building profiles of what it finds so other employees can find out what those employees know.

Microsoft’s emphasis on the search capabilities comes in response to strong competition from Google Inc., which has become the market leader for search on the Internet. Google is increasingly courting enterprise customers, offering hardware and software search products tailored to their needs.

Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, an upgrade of software used to build Web portals and share documents, will be released later this year to corporate users with Microsoft’s next office suite, Office 2007. Microsoft says the search feature can automatically discover undocumented knowledge and relationships but also safeguard personal information.

Google already offers enterprises that functionality in its Google Search Appliance, which with the addition of appropriate software modules can search data in back-office systems from Cisco Systems Inc., Cognos Inc., Oracle Corp. and others, and presenting it in a readable format.

Microsoft tended to focus on the collaboration features of the software’s previous version, SharePoint Portal Server 2003, rather than search, said Angela Ashenden, senior analyst with Ovum Ltd. But search is surging in popularity as Google has made it a cornerstone of its programs.

“Typically, Microsoft has never been a direct player in the search market,” Ashenden said. “Obviously, with Google coming in and making a lot of noise and trying to take a share of the market … this is Microsoft saying that we play here too, we have a product offering.”

“Knowledge management” was a key buzzword a few years ago, with numerous smaller companies offering products catered to the area. But the concept foundered because companies didn’t view it as a vital software function and spent money elsewhere, Ashenden said.

Renewed interest in knowledge management has come from search engines and the rise in so-called social networking software, which aims to link people through common interests.

“The question is whether the technology can really replace knowing the right people,” Ashenden said. SharePoint will also have a searchable “business data catalog” with information from business applications produced by vendors such as SAP AG and Siebel Systems Inc., Microsoft said.

Another new Microsoft product, called Office SharePoint Server for Search 2007, can search Web sites, SharePoint sites, Exchange Server and IBM’s collaboration software and Lotus Notes. Microsoft said the search software can be upgraded to the full SharePoint Server product.

Later this year, Microsoft said it will release a test version of Windows Live Search, another feature that will be able to scan the Internet, desktops and corporate networks.

Vendors such as Autonomy Corp., Google and Microsoft have made great strides in their search capabilities, but chief information officers focus on two areas: price and relevancy of the search results, said Matt Roadnight, a managing consultant with Conchango Ltd., a technology consulting business in Egham, England.

How a search appliance or engine will perform also depends greatly on how an organization has tagged their data, Roadnight said. Enterprises have to go through the intellectual process of finding which search engine works best for them, he said.

Roadnight said Conchango doesn’t favor any particular search product when consulting, but goes with the one that pleases the customer. “There’s no sort of silver bullet right now,” he said.

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