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Competition is good

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Everyone has a favourite search engine, but anyone who has not had a look at Microsoft's Windows Live Search since the final version was released in September last year, will see that competition from Google and Yahoo has resulted in a much better product that's creative and innovative.

Although not everyone agreed last week that the voice-over-IP functionality within Windows Messenger is a better alternative to Skype or Google Talk, for my money, the image search within Windows Live Search is at least the most innovative among the main search engines.

Microsoft says the race for top honours in search is not over and that search has a long way to go before achieving intelligent answers to questions, but most friends and colleagues who've looked at Windows Live image search for the first time in recent days have been enthusiastic.

Making good technology better.

Using core image search technology, licensed from Picsearch in Sweden two years ago, Microsoft has introduced a couple of features that are likely to appeal to most users. They are also unique to Live Search as far as I can tell.

Topping the list of cool functionality is that Live Search allows users to view all results in a single Web page. This eliminates the need to click through pages of search results, which is arguably one of the biggest drawbacks of Google's image search. The one-page feature is particularly useful when using a dial-up connection because no time is wasted waiting for each new page to load. Instead, Live Search enables users to look through the top search results, while thousands of other images are added. All a user has to do to see more images is to scroll down the page. Even Yahoo, which has been much praised for its image search in the past, and Picsearch do not yet offer one-page search results pooling.

Live Search image results pages are also not cluttered with image information, nor do users have to click the image and then click another link to enlarge the picture. Microsoft has implemented an elegant solution to these problems. By simply moving the cursor over the image, users can view an enlarged version of the image, as well as the file name, size, format and origin.

Unique functionality

Live Search is at least the most innovative among the main search engines.

Warwick Ashford, portals managing editor

Just like the other search engines, Live Search enables users to search for images by file size, however, it is the only one that provides a zoom control that can zoom in or out on all search results by dragging a slider bar, that also allows users to adjust the number of images displayed on screen at any given time.

Just as easy and useful is the facility that allows users to collect the best images as they look through the search results by dragging images to a "scratchpad" on the right of the screen. If no better images are found lower down in the search results, users already have a selection of the best available. There's no having to go back and find images spotted earlier. These groups of images can also be saved as collections for future reference.

Finally, in its arsenal of image search features, Microsoft has added an automatic listing of people related to any person who is the subject of a main search. For example, a search for "Nelson Mandela" will yield not only 28 688 images, but also a list of 18 related people, including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Walter Sisulu.

Perhaps this is what Microsoft means by "more intelligent" search?

Quality over quantity

Athough the "Mandela" search yielded more images using Google and Yahoo, it could be argued that Live Search provided the best overall search experiences. Apart from the number of images returned, Live Search was able to match just about all the functionality of Google, Yahoo and Picsearch, while adding a lot more besides.

Only one feature in Yahoo caught my eye that I was not able to find in Live Search: the ability to search for images in colour or black and white. If there are others, I missed them.

It seems the time has come for die-hard supporters of Google and Yahoo to get real about the fact that Microsoft's Live Search is emerging as a serious contender in the search arena. In terms of innovation and ease of use in searching for images, Live search definitely gets my vote.

If Microsoft is correct in saying the race for top honours in search is far from over, end users can look forward to a lot more innovation in future as the top players wrestle their way towards providing accurate and intelligent search results. Competition will ensure that exciting times lie ahead for all users of Web-based services.

At the very least, the progress made in Microsoft's search technology in the past few years proves that competition is good for the consumer or end user. Competition must and will bring better days for technology consumers in SA - that's if it is ever truly allowed.

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