For the past few years, Microsoft (MSFT) has played also-ran to Google (GOOG) in the Internet search battle. But the software giant thinks it might get an advantage over Google in one important piece of the business -- searching corporate data. This summer, Microsoft plans to roll out a new product for businesses that let users search for information on their PCs, the Internet, and their corporate intranets.
Microsoft Chairman William H. Gates III unveiled the new technology on May 17 to more than 100 of the world's top CEOs, gathered at Microsoft's Redmond, Wash., campus for the company's 10th annual CEO Summit. He told the attendees, which included Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-A), Anne Mulcahy of Xerox (XRX), and Ed Zander of Motorola (MOT), that making corporate information readily available to employees will provide significant boosts in productivity.
"The real business point here is that people, these information workers that are a huge part of the investment that you make, and a huge part of determining the quality of decisions about products and pricing and marketing, that software empowerment for them really can make the difference in how well things get done," Gates said.
ENTERPRISE ISSUES. And Microsoft believes it may have an edge over Google in this market. That's because, unlike Google, which is also trying to crack the corporate search business (see BW Online, 05/15/06, "Google's Search for Corporations"). Microsoft already sells billions of dollars of software annually to business.
What's more, Microsoft has significant first-hand knowledge of the enterprise software business, having sold applications such as its SQL Server database software and its Exchange mail server software for years. That should help as it develops its new search technology. Business customers want "enterprise information management," says Kevin Johnson, co-president of Microsoft's Platforms and Services Div. "What they're not looking for is some pinpoint search application."
The technology, dubbed Windows Live Search, is a separate application that users open to find information. It collects search results from the Web using MSN's search service and from a user's PC with the company's desktop search product and new technology that sifts through corporate data. The name is somewhat confusing since Microsoft already has a search service for consumers that uses the same name(see BW Online, 03/08/06, "Microsoft: Searching Your Favorite Sites"). Johnson says that Microsoft may reconsider the name as the technology gets closer to rollout.
LAST MILE OF PRODUCTIVITY. Gates believes that the company's corporate search product will help customers close in on what he calls "the last mile of productivity." Workers are simultaneously overloaded with information that comes at them from all directions, yet challenged to find the key bits of information they need to do their jobs. Any help making workers more efficient will be welcomed, says Summit attendee Nandan M. Nilekani, CEO of the Indian outsourcing giant Infosys (INFY). "There is a surfeit of information," Nilekani says. "We have stuff coming out of our ears."
But customers that use some non-Microsoft software, such as Oracle (ORCL) databases, won't be able to use the new corporate search technology to zero in on that information from the get-go. That's because digital "connectors" are necessary to tap into corporate software programs. And Microsoft expects to have only a few connectors, for products from a handful of vendors such as SAP (SAP) and Oracle's Seibel, available when the technology launches. Eventually, the company expects to develop those connectors itself or have other software developers do so.
Gates also unveiled a social networking technology that brings a MySpace-like applications to the business world. Microsoft's Office SharePoint Server 2007, due in October, will include a new technology called Knowledge Network, designed to help co-workers find colleagues with the expertise they need. For workers who opt in, Knowledge Network automatically scans their contact lists, e-mails, and e-mail distribution lists to create a profile. That way, co-workers can search for expertise among their colleagues to gain specific knowledge that can help with business decision-making.