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Microsoft prepares for search assault

Don't lead people to sites for "potato chips if they mean computer chips," Gates quips.

SYDNEY--Microsoft plans to kick off a series of improvements to its search capabilities starting in July as it looks to compete with heavyweights Google and Yahoo, Bill Gates said Monday.

Microsoft's chairman told a media briefing here that the company had "several milestones with its search site" on the way.

"In July, the format of the site will change--and so will the quality of what you get--and the way it'll look is dramatically improved," Gates said. "It'll be later this year that we actually roll out what's entirely our own back-end driving the search".

Gates said the way search was currently done was "very low tech," based on taking a "bunch of words and making an index.

"You're not actually understanding the documents, and so some of the false hits you get are almost humorous," he said. "A human would not make those mistakes because a human can understand the document."

Microsoft had been doing linguistic research for more than a decade that "actually lets us parse and understand documents," he said. "That's where you can bring in the idea: Don't show this person a restaurant if it's not nearby (or) don't show this person something about...potato chips if they mean computer chips."

Gates said the future of search includes personalization, understanding local information and having the ability to analyze semantics of a document, browse databases and attach domain knowledge.

A mundane search task that needs improvement, Gates said, is a query about whether a given flight is on time.

"Generic Web search today is actually terrible for that, but we should be able to look at your query and say, "Hey, that's a flight number" and give a response that's basically just a direct answer to the question, not a list of random Web sites."

Iain Ferguson of ZDNet Australia reported from Sydney.