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Microsoft brains take on Google

The software titan hires top scientists and mathematicians in its quest for search algorithms that will allow Microsoft to compete directly with Google.

SYDNEY--Microsoft has hired top scientists in its quest for search algorithms that will allow it to compete directly with Google.

Microsoft is actively working on new search algorithms it will use to power its own search engine and enter into competition with Google, according to the head of the company's Theory Group.

Speaking here at the Fifth International Congress on Industrial and Applied Mathematics (ICIAM), professor Jennifer Tour Chayes said Microsoft is patenting new search algorithms with the goal of replacing the Inktomi technology currently powering MSN's search with Microsoft's own.

"Since Yahoo acquired Inktomi, Bill (Gates) has decided we need our own capacity," she said, adding that the company is already patenting new algorithms it believes have the potential to power a new search engine.

Microsoft last month launched a new search program called MSNBot, which trawls the Web to build an index of HTML links and documents--functions previously left to Inktomi and other partners. That's led to speculation that Microsoft plans to take on Google more directly in the search business.

It is believed to be the first step in a multiyear plan to build new search technology that encompasses home and business users, with the ultimate goal of the technology being to bind Microsoft's various Web sites, applications and the Windows operating system.

Beyond search, Chayes believes filtering is the next key application that will require the input of high mathematics. "As computers become more pervasive, we are going to be assaulted as we walk around," she says. "To take advantage of all the good things IT has to offer, you will need a filter. We can't all have a secretary do the filtering for us, so there'll be a theoretical solution."

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Founded to perform big-picture research--one of Chayes' speeches to the ICIAM is entitled "Phase Transitions in Combinatorial Optimization"--Microsoft's theory division has already contributed directly to product development, notably the new version of Active Directory shipped with Windows Server 2003.

"The product team asked us for assistance with a bottleneck where an algorithm was preventing us from working with larger networks," she said. "One of our team, Laszlo Lovasz, developed an improved algorithm in a day."

Despite this incredible service, the theory group is not a resource available on tap within Microsoft. "We have people dedicated to interfacing between the product and research groups so that when a problem comes to us it is very well-described," Chayes said.

Perhaps the best reason for this is the stature of some of the team's researchers: Lovasz is a winner of the Wolf Medal, one of the world's leading mathematics prizes, and is also a former Yale University professor. Others in the eight-strong permanent team have won the Field Medal, mathematics' equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

"We're a very far-out group at Microsoft," she said. "It could be 50 years from now before some of this work is used."

Simon Sharwood of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.

CNET's Jim Hu and Mike Ricciuti contributed to this report.