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Microsoft retools Expedia technology

Jockeying for position on the Internet travel runway, the Microsoft offshoot unveils new searching and pricing technology designed to give consumers more choices.

Jockeying for position on the Internet travel runway, Microsoft's on Monday unveiled new searching and pricing technology designed to give consumers more choices.

Expedia said the travel site's revamped search engine, dubbed Expert Searching and Pricing (ESP), now lets consumers choose from an average of 400 air-travel itineraries with each search for round-trip domestic tickets. In addition, consumers will be able to build their own air and hotel packages for low prices, the company said.

The online travel sector is in flux, with many companies struggling to stay alive as the market overall has turned its back on dot-coms, but stalwarts such as Expedia and have been busy broadening their services. Expedia, for one, has been bolstering vacation services such as cruise bookings in an effort to increase its customer base and better compete.

Meanwhile, battered e-commerce site, one of the pioneers in the online travel sector with its "name your price" service, has had to postpone new services as it struggles to stay in business. Upstart travel site also hit rough times and earlier this month closed down in its infancy. Unlike several existing services, Savvio, which specialized in airfare and cruise bookings, allowed travelers to choose departure times and flights without committing to a purchase.

Most online travel companies provided customers with only a limited amount of information about an itinerary before they had to make a commitment. Some companies required customers to buy tickets before they knew specific departure times or the airline. Analysts have said there is plenty of room for improvement in the evolving sector.

With Expedia's new ESP technology, built on the Windows NT operating system and more than four years in the making, customers input search data such as destination and time of flight, and the new search engine displays fares for all airlines, with the cheapest fare for the requested times and routes sorted to the top. Customers can then build their own trip, with the site shooting off round-trip prices as each step of the travel package is entered.

Expedia?s revamping of its search capabilities "is a necessity in the game of travel as well as online shopping," said Meta Group analyst Gene Alvarez. "A big reason why consumers have not switched over to booking their travel (plans) over the Web is because of the length of time it takes to find everything."

Alvarez added that Expedia's improved technology could help speed up the process of stitching together travel plans, putting consumers on a level with travel agents who often have a wealth of information at their finger tips.

"This is a positive step in that direction," he said. "It is something other travel sites will follow in suit."

Travel spending is off to a slow start this year, and the slowing economy may scale back vacation spending for the year, according to Alvarez, who is at work on an analysis of the 2001 travel market.

Other key tools that Expedia is introducing include a new sort bar, which lets people sort results by price, duration, departure time or arrival time; a "Best Trip" feature that identifies and displays ideal flight combinations from among the hundreds shown based on factors including price, departure and return times, duration, and airline carriers; and a feature that allows travelers to view flight choices for specific carriers that have the cheapest fares on a specified route.

Expedia, based in Bellevue, Wash., also said that a new air and hotel package feature will allow customers to create their own packages by choosing a combination of airfare and hotel accommodations for some 320 different destinations.

Expedia's move on Monday comes as parent company Microsoft launches a $200 million advertising campaign. Microsoft said the new initiative is intended to position the company more directly against rivals Oracle, IBM and Sun Microsystems in the enterprise software market, an area that Microsoft estimates to be approximately a $90 billion market annually.