Microsoft's Next-Gen Search Engine Kumo Expected Next Week

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The search for Microsoft's mysterious Kumo may soon be over. According to reports, Microsoft's CEO Steve Ballmer will unveil Redmond's latest search brand, code-named Kumo, next week at The Wall Street Journal's D: All Things D conference. Ballmer is one of the featured speakers at the conference, which runs from May 26-28 in Carlsbad, California. News that Ballmer could unveil Kumo during the conference broke late yesterday on the All Things D blog and in today's The Wall Street Journal.

Microsoft has officially declined to comment on a Kumo debut, but the fact that the conference sponsors are scooping news on their own event suggests this rumor is either a publicity stunt or true. All Things D will release a detailed schedule of featured speakers to conference attendees on May 26.

Microsoft employees began internal tests of Kumo earlier this year, and by March images of Microsoft's overhauled search engine leaked online. The screenshots show a three-column search results page featuring useful tools like related searches, a single-session search history for quick backtracking, and a set of search categories that relate directly to your query. Searches for a musical artist, for example, would bring up search categories like song lyrics, tickets, albums and the artist's biography, while searching for a product would bring up categories for images, reviews and manuals.

While it's hard to say what Microsoft's finished product will look like, Kumo's search categories that relate directly to your query sound a lot like semantic search -- the capability for a computer to understand exactly what you are looking for based on your natural language query. Last year, Microsoft bought the semantic search engine Powerset, and Redmond has likely incorporated Powerset's capabilities into Kumo. In March, Google unveiled its own semantic capabilities for search, and last week, the much anticipated semantic "answer machine" Wolfram Alpha debuted. Wolfram Alpha is geared toward fact-based information and not indexing Web pages like Google or Live Search, but it shows that semantic capability is becoming the next major leap forward insearch and for computers in general. No one has quite mastered semantic search yet, but they're getting closer.

As for the name Kumo, it's still unknown if Microsoft will stick with that moniker or surprise everyone with a brand new name. Possible candidates that have been kicked around include Hook, Bing, Sift and Kiev. There is also an outside chance that Microsoft could go back to the more traditional MSN Search, but most people agree Microsoft's current brand, Live Search, will be discontinued. If Microsoft sticks with Kumo, that would shore up theories of Kumo as the brand name for a wide variety of online services from Microsoft, including advertising, telecommunications and entertainment services.

This is not the first rumored debut of Kumo. Blogger Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land suggests that Microsoft will unveil its latest overhauled search brand at the SMX Advanced Search conference in Seattle in early June. Sullivan and Dr. Qi Lu, Microsoft's president of online services, are the keynote speakers at SMX, and Sullivan believes it makes more sense for Microsoft to unveil Kumo at a search-specific event that is also closer to its home base in Redmond, WA. However, All Things D is clearly the bigger and more high profile event to kick off Microsoft's new Google challenger. Not willing to give up on his own event, Sullivan theorizes that Ballmer could demonstrate Kumo during All Things D, and then Dr. Qi Lu would announce Kumo was publicly available during SMX. That's entirely possible, but it sounds more like wishful thinking to me.

While offering a variety range of online services is important, nothing compares to the all-important achievement of search dominance. For years, tech companies have been going up against the current search champ, Google, to challenge its dominance as the major gateway to the Internet. But dominance is not the only motivator, since the search king also gets the largest piece of the online advertising revenue pie. According to April 2009 results from the metrics firm ComScore, Google owns 64.2 percent of the United States search market, followed by Yahoo! at 20.4 percent, and Microsoft trails way behind in third with 8.2 percent of U.S. searches. That's a big deficit for Microsoft to overcome, so the question is, will Kumo-Hook-Bing-Sift fly up the search market charts or end up going bing, bong, splat?

Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul).

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