The software behemoth quietly introduced the change two weeks ago, updating Internet Explorer's autosearch function to launch whenever someone types a misspelled or nonexistent domain name into the browser's address bar.
Now an MSN Search page appears by default, rather than one of several standard error pages.
For example, a search for "http://www.microsoft.con" might draw a page suggesting alternate spellings or Web links for the mis-typed address, as well as direct Internet Explorer users to MSN Search.
Microsoft said the update helps Web surfers by better directing them to places they want to go. The change is an effort "to make it a less disruptive experience to browse the Web," said Jim Cullinan, lead product manager for Windows XP, Microsoft's forthcoming operating system. "Instead of flashing an error message...this enhances and improves the experience for novice users."
But some critics say the feature could be likened to a land grab on territory that has otherwise been the Antarctica of the Internet. Error pages are called up more than 14 million times a day worldwide via Internet Explorer, according to Microsoft.
Because Internet Explorer is the most widely used Web browser, critics say the change could unfairly influence competition among search engines on the Internet.
"Microsoft always can have a plausible customer service justification in making the service easier--and they can maintain that with the straight face. But the net effect of this is to push to the max every possible way to leverage the Windows monopoly," said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president of nonprofit law firm Media Access Project, a group that has worked with organizations such as Consumers Union in examining issues around Microsoft's monopoly in desktop operating systems.
The criticism is just the latest in a long string of complaints focusing on Microsoft's alleged monopolistic practices--criticism that has reached a renewed crescendo as the company prepares to release Windows XP, a major overhaul of its desktop operating system.
That launch will come as Microsoft braces for court-ordered limits on its business in the wake of a federal appeals court decision that found the company engaged in unlawful conduct to maintain its OS monopoly. The Redmond, Wash.-based company has appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
Microsoft's decision to replace error pages with its own search tools has so far drawn a muted response from competitors. Representatives at Yahoo and AltaVista both declined to comment on the move, while Google did not return phone calls Tuesday.
Himawan Gunadhi, chief executive of newly launched search service Wisenut, said that the move clearly delivers more novice Web surfers, likely to mis-type domain names, to MSN Search.
"For those that are competing against MSN Search, this is a challenge because this service captures more users for MSN," he said. Gunadhi added, however, that he doesn't see this as a threat to his company specifically because Wisenut hopes to license its search service to major portals such as MSN.
There have been other attempts to profit from the address bar of a browser.
RealNames, which is partially owned by Microsoft, lets Web surfers type ordinary words such as travel and books in the address bar to find specific sites. Search engines such as Google have also made available software downloads that can add a search window directly into the browser toolbar.
Other companies have tried to reap benefits from misspelled domain names. For example, many buy Web addresses one letter removed from popular pages such as Yahoo to bring extra traffic to their sites and boost ad sales. Adult Web sites also have long purchased commonly misspelled terms to redirect traffic to their Web sites--a ploy that is unaffected by Microsoft's changes to the address bar.
Microsoft's move ups the ante, however, because no one had previously intercepted standard error pages with their own search pages.
Technically, Microsoft added a feature that resolves DNS (domain name system) errors to its autosearch tool, exploiting a function of the Web browser that lets operators wire the address bar to a search engine.
Normally, when a Web surfer misspells an address or looks for an unregistered domain name, the Internet service provider will search for the appropriate server to deliver the page. If it can't find the server, an error page will be sent.
Rather than default to an error page, Microsoft can deliver another page in its place.
The MSN Search page may also list "featured sites" that search editors deem relevant to the miss-keyed term. The links can be chosen from MSN content partners and advertising partners, as well as popular sites on the Web, according to the page. Microsoft also discloses that it accepts payments for links to advertising partners.
Autosearch is not new. The feature, which has been available since the introduction of IE 5, lets Web surfers type a word such as travel in the address bar and pull up various Web links without having to visit a search engine. Internet Explorer users can specify which search engine they would like to use within the address bar, but the default taps MSN Search.
"In IE 5.0, autosearch was improved," Microsoft's Cullinan said. "A new functionality allows that if you type something in, and, if there's no direct link to a particular Web site, it will pull up a search page. The default is the MSN Search."
The feature should work for all misspelled domain names. However, it does not work consistently for Web surfers wired to the Internet through different proxy servers. Many corporations use proxy servers to protect their networks, filter Web pages, and act as a general buffer between the Internet and their systems.
Enterprise and network clients, ISPs, and individual Web surfers can change how the feature works if they choose, Cullinan said. Web surfers, for example, can change their settings in the autosearch settings dialog box.
Through the autosearch feature, Microsoft has been able to locate patterns in the search paths resulting in errors. It has also noted that many people go directly to a search engine after failing to find their Web sites, prompting the new feature.
David Conrad, chief technology officer at Nominum, said that although no other browser has done this before, others such as Opera and Netscape can easily do so. Nominum provides technology for domain-name addressing.
"In this one particular case, it's Microsoft's attempt to be a bit more helpful," Conrad said. "This is just a cute little hack. The browser knows when a user types something wrong, and any browser can take that information and do something with it."
"For Microsoft, it could get a lot of good information for a domain name registrar," Conrad said.
Netscape spokeswoman Catherine Corre said the company is looking into possibilities for a similar feature, but for now believes that its browser has not dealt with a high enough volume of misspelled domain names to warrant such a service. Netscape currently allows Web visitors to type in common words into the address line, through its Internet Keyword System, letting them go straight to a Web site using natural language.
Others say the move is threatening because it could extend Microsoft's monopoly.
Media Access Project's Schwartzman likened the service to Smart Tags, a Windows service that links common terms on Web pages to Microsoft-designated pages. Microsoft pulled the Smart Tags feature from the upcoming version of Windows XP after it sparked a storm of criticism.
Schwartzman said that Microsoft has a history of creating default settings in its Windows operating system and Internet Explorer browser that point to Microsoft services and omit competing products.
"Each of these individual, tiny insults may seem reasonably benign or trivial, but when you put them together they constitute a systematic effort to leverage their monopoly," he said. "Standing alone it might not be such a terrible thing. But it's not standing alone."