Thursday, November 11, 2004 - Personal Technology - Personal Technology: "Microsoft, the giant software maker, has a split personality. In product categories where it has already crushed the competition, like Web browsers and word processors, it acts like a classic monopoly, rarely introducing real innovation. But in categories where it is challenging a technology leader, the Seattle superpower can act like a scrappy, innovative contender.
Today, Microsoft is due to unveil its long-awaited new Web search service, and the product bears all the hallmarks of the feisty, upstart side of the company. I've been testing this new version of the company's MSN search service, and, while it isn't yet as good as Google, the search leader Microsoft is targeting, it shows all the signs of becoming a very serious challenger.
The best thing about the new MSN Search is a set of features absent from Google. Especially nice is the ability to get actual answers -- not just Web links -- when you enter fact-based queries. Microsoft draws these answers from its Encarta encyclopedia, including lots of material that was formerly provided only to paid subscribers.
For instance, I typed "birth of Lincoln" into MSN, and was given his birth date on top of the usual long list of Web results. The same query typed into Google yielded no direct information, and the first few Google results pertained to birth control and maternity services in Lincoln, Neb.
I also got quick answers from MSN to questions like "population of Copenhagen," "what is an arthropod?" and "GDP of Bulgaria."
MSN also includes -- buried in a feature called "search builder" -- a set of slider controls that allow you to adjust a number of search parameters, such as how exact or approximate a search should be.
Searching for music is also much better in MSN. I typed in "Rolling Stones" and was able to click on, and hear, previews of several Stones songs right from the search result. I was also able to go directly to a page in the MSN music store where I could buy the songs."

Wow -- a Microsoft offering Walt Mossberg actually likes!
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