Despite a lack of visible progress in catching up with Google, the leader in Internet search engines, Microsoft says it still believes that it will eventually turn the tables by improving the quality of its search results and by changing the way computer users search.
It is all part of an arms race for search supremacy that has engaged top researchers at both companies.
During a morning session for more than 300 visitors at the Microsoft Conference Center, Lili Cheng, a user-interface designer for the Windows Vista operating system, showed off a new service called Mix that will allow Web surfers to organize search results and easily share them.
Cheng, a Microsoft researcher trained as an architect, has moved back and forth between research and product development positions at the company. She said Mix would be released in six to nine months.
A second tool demonstrated, called Web Assistant, is intended to improve the relevance of search results and help resolve ambiguities in results that, for example, would give a user sites for both Reggie Bush and George Bush.
"This is a prototype of a browser that aims to change the way we interact with information," said Silviu Cucerzan, one of the researchers who designed the new tool.
So far, Microsoft has failed to gain ground against the dominant search provider Google. Data released by Nielsen/NetRatings last week showed Google fielding 53.7 percent of all search queries, while Microsoft had an 8.9 percent market share. Moreover, in the past year, the number of queries Google handled has risen by 40 percent, while Microsoft's figure increased by only 2.5 percent.
"Microsoft people are really passionate about search, and we want to compete and to win," said Dan Liebling, a member of the Microsoft Research staff working on techniques to improve the relevance of results in Microsoft's Live Search service.
Among other things, the results can be refined based on records of earlier searches by thousands of others and the ways those users changed search terms when they did not get the results they were seeking.
Susan Dumais, a veteran Microsoft search expert, has built a tool to help determine relevance called Personalized Search. It pulls together several hundred results and then compares them with the index that Windows users can build of the documents on their hard drives, a feature called Desktop Search.
She demonstrated the effectiveness of the program by searching for Michael Jordan. By culling through local information on her hard drive, the program was able to discern that she was interested in finding the Michael Jordan who is the machine-learning expert at the University of California, Berkeley, not the basketball player.
Search in the future will look nothing like today's simple search engine interfaces, she said, adding, "If in 10 years we are still using a rectangular box and a list of results, I should be fired."
Microsoft researchers are exploring other ways to exploit clues about the context of a search as well as conversational-style interfaces that will be more powerful than the way users now enter and modify search terms, Dumais said.
The sessions on Tuesday opened a, for reporters and business partners and for up to 7,000 of the company's 70,000 employees. The projects shown on Tuesday were mostly ones that Microsoft may turn into products within a couple of years.
About half of Microsoft's 750 researchers from around the world have come to take part in the event, said Richard Rashid, a former Carnegie Mellon computer scientist who founded and leads Microsoft Research.
He acknowledged that he had originally opposed the idea of Techfest when it began six years ago, but was struck by how enthusiastically it was embraced by Microsoft employees.
"We realized we were clearly tapping an underserved community," he said. Now the company uses the event to move technology from its research division into products.
That includes monitoring which employees visit which lectures and booths and looking for patterns, he said.