Microsoft sticks to the tried and trusted

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It isn’t a better search engine that will bring internet users flocking to Microsoft. It isn’t a hot social networking site, or indeed any other knock-out service that beats the rivals hands down. It is… integration.

What? Well, this is how Kevin Johnson, who runs a large part of Microsoft as head of the platforms and services group, sees it. Asked at the financial analyst meeting today how he is going to win a bigger slice of the online audience, he drew a parallel with the Office suite of applications. Stitching together a range of things online to give people a "seamless experience and deeper integration" is apparently what it’s all about.

This is the antithesis of the Web 2.0 vision of the world, one that sees the glue as being more important than the individual services themselves.

In its way, though, this is also the strategy that Google is now pursuing. Despite all its talk of never taking on anything new unless it can deliver something far better than what came before, Google has its own share of me-too services and has been intent on stitching together its own suite.

Properly executed, the Microsoft approach ought to help. With hundreds of millions of Hotmail and MSN users as a foundation, it should be able to draw more of that traffic to its in-house search engine. It already has reach, with a massive audience online – now it has to keep those users longer, so integration makes sense.

The biggest enemy is time. Even if successful, it may take Johnson years to overhaul Yahoo!, let alone make a dent in Google. So why not a big acquisition – say, of Yahoo itself – to get things moving faster? Without naming names, Johnson questioned the idea of paying up to buy a competitor in a business with very low switching costs, where users could quickly go elsewhere. But given his evident ambition and growing impatience, big deals have to be on the radar screen.

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