MSN Search's Beta Blunder


By Jay Greene Nov. 11 was supposed to be a big day for the folks running MSN Search. The new service, albeit a test version, was slated to launch and begin Microsoft's (MSFT) big push into the lucrative and competitive world of Internet search technology. But the day didn't start off too well. The site -- http://beta.search.msn.com -- went down almost as soon as it went up.

It was an egg-on-the-face moment for Microsoft. It expects to build a credible business to counter Web-search leader Google (GOOG), and it pumped more than $100 million into the nearly two-year development effort.

For months, Microsoft execs have crowed about the technology that was soon to come, including the speed with which it delivered results, and new features, such as one that taps its Encarta encyclopedia business to give users answers to direct questions, such as "Who was John Adams' vice-president?"

"TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES." Instead, Web users who tried MSN Search on Veterans Day morning got messages that told them it was unavailable. Microsoft resolved the service's problems later in the day.

Microsoft declines to say why the service went down, citing only "technical difficulties." But MSN spokesman Adam Sohn says the service is in "beta," or test, mode right now. The point of a beta product is to run it through its paces to make sure it measures up, and fix glitches that arise.

"We expected to find some problems in the beta, and we expect there will also be times when we limit service availability for maintenance purposes," Sohn says. "We want to find those problems in order to help us build a higher quality product." So, users can expect more malfunctions as the testing continues.

CREDIBILITY MATTERS. It would be one thing if a startup's beta had sputtered. Not too many folks would have noticed. But this is Microsoft, earth's largest software company. And it trumpeted this test launch with a public-relations campaign to ensure that users around the world knew the service was ready for widespread use. So when MSN Search went down, a bit of Microsoft's credibility in the search-engine business went with it.

That's not to say that MSN won't eventually give Google a run for its money. In addition to Encarta-aided searches, MSN Search comes up with results for musicians, with links to listen to songs and Web sites featuring the artists. And MSN Search is available in 26 markets around the world and 11 different languages.

Still, much of Google's lead comes from its reputation as a reliable search engine. MSN Search can't hope to make a dent in that business if its site -- even the test version -- is unavailable. Greene

is BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau chief


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