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Matt Hines

Staff Writer, CNET

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.–Microsoft has no immediate plans to integrate new desktop search tools into its Windows operating system, according to an executive with the software maker.

Speaking on a conference panel at the Harvard Business School’s 2005 Cyberposium event Saturday, Mark Kroese, general manager of information services for Microsoft’s MSN portal, indicated that the software giant is watching its step with desktop search. Krouse said he believes the company could be perceived as trying to leverage its dominance in operating systems to knock out search rivals such as Google if it tried to bring desktop search to Windows.

In December 2004, MSN released a beta version of its desktop search technology, which allows people to search the contents of their hard drive, including Outlook e-mail, calendar items, contacts and documents saved in other Office applications. It also lets them navigate the Web with MSN’s proprietary search technology from points within e-mail and within Windows.

The battle for desktop search pits Microsoft against Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves, among others, in the fight for presence as a de facto search engine on consumers’ PCs. Microsoft has long planned to introduce technology for mining files on the desktop, but it arrived later to the market than top search rival Google, which introduced a beta version of its own desktop tool in October.

Kroese said Microsoft’s current makeup, based on the 2002 consent decree ruling in its federal antitrust case, makes it hard to consider such innovations without first deciding how such a strategy may be perceived by outsiders. For years, the company has been involved in a drawn-out antitrust case involving its bundling of the Internet Explorer browser with Windows, and it’s currently fighting a court battle in Europe over its bundling of the Windows Media Player with the OS.

“If anyone thinks the consent degree hasn’t slowed us down, you’re wrong,” Kroese said. “If I want to meet with a product manager for Windows, there need to be at least three lawyers in the room. We have to be so careful now, that we err on the side of caution.”

Kroese continued to say that any sort of high-level strategy decision that might be considered controversial from a competitive standpoint would come under the direct oversight of Bill Gates and the team of lawyers he has employed to protect the company from further antitrust fallout.

Microsoft has said that it is building a new file system addition for Windows, called WinFS, that will allow more relevant searches across Windows applications. WinFS was orginally planned to debut with the next version of Windows, code named Longhorn. But WinFS has been delayed, and it could be several more years before the revamped storage mechanism finds its way into Windows.

On the Harvard panel, business leaders from companies including MSN, Google, Yahoo and Ask Jeeves debated shifting trends in the search market and highlighted desktop search as one example of how their companies can grow to become more important to their customers. By helping people find needed information on their computers, not just the Internet, the companies believe they can make their search technologies an even more useful and irreplaceable tool.