The week in technology: Microsoft gets classified

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Microsoft opened a new front in its battle with Google this week, when it announced its own online listings business only two weeks after Google launched a beta version of its own listings service - Google Base.

And unlike Google, which has played down its ambitions for Base despite many excited bloggers attributing grand ambitions to the new database, Microsoft made no bones about its intention to become a major force in online classified advertising.

Microsoft said its service, code-named Fremont after a Seattle market, is similar to the popular Craigslist.org classified service. On Craigslist, anyone can post items for sale or available jobs, apartments, or houses, as well as other services and events they’d like to broadcast to the public. In turn, users can search these product listings and connect with the sellers, companies, or organizers directly through the service.

The service has reportedly been available in test form to Microsoft employees since last week, and is expected to be unveiled in a couple of weeks from now.

Unsurprisingly, the move drew ire from bloggers, with many accusing the company they love to hate of copycat-ism - although Microsoft insisted that it had been working on the idea since early this year.

“We started this before anyone knew about Google Base. Having seen what Google Base is doing, I don’t think they were aiming for a classifieds service. They don’t have a taxonomy of listings like we do. They see it as an open database,” said Garry Wiseman, MSN product unit manager.

For those not talking Microspeak, one blogger has been kind enough to provide a definition of taxonomy.

Mr Wiseman hopes to release a test version of Windows Live Classifieds to the public in the next month, with the full service going live in the first half of next year.

Not all bloggers came out against the service. Some noted that Fremont offered a degree of user control over the content posted on the service that could make it a more attractive prospect than Base, or even Craiglist.

The key difference is that Fremont will be integrated with other MSN services, such as its instant messaging service. This will allow the poster to control who sees their listings, from everyone to just a select group of people on the MSN Messenger buddy list. So if you’d rather give your friends first dibs at some hot concert tickets rather than flog them to strangers, the service lets you.

Blogger Charlene Li said use of buddly lists would give Fremont an additional “social” element with users, for example, organising second-hand clothes swaps.

She also said Microsoft’s classifieds interface was familiar and easy to use - resembling Craigslist in many respects - but was unsure whether everyone would be able to grasp it.

“Don’t get me wrong - I love Google Base because of the audacious potential it represents in terms of creating new content for the web. But in terms of a classifieds service, it will take a lot of application development to get it to the point where the average Joe will be able to use it.”

Another blogger concurred: “I can’t see my mum being able to figure out how it works.”

Only time will tell which of the services internet users will take to their hearts.

Browser wars stoked by new Firefox

A new version of web browser Firefox sparked an ecstatic reception from internet geeks who have been singing its praises ever since the free service was launched by non-profit Mozilla Corporation last year.

“Good show, mozilla.com! It’s just awesome, TOTALLY AWESOME!!!,” one enthusiast exclaimed.

Firefox 1.5 - download free-of-charge here - boasts faster browsing, quicker updates and better blocking of pop-up advertising. It also offers improved security - checking daily for patches, downloading them automatically and prompting users to install them - and makes it easier to sign up for RSS feeds. Click here for the new version’s full specifications.

Firefox has grown in popularity thanks to a clean, uncluttered interface, its distinctive tabbed pages accessible via a single mouse click and faster web page navigation on the back of fewer nuisance ads.

Firefox 1.0 has been downloaded 100m times and won almost 10 per cent of the browser market, dominated by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer - a new version of which, IE7, is expected next year.

Being an open source program, the new version of Firefox was developed and tested with the help of thousands of volunteer programmers since a beta version was released at the beginning of November. Mozilla is now planning a regular release schedule with 2.0 and 3.0 versions expected in 2006 and 2007 respectively.

In his review of 1.5, Paul Taylor, the FT technology columnist, described it as “very solid and reliable - even when it encounters a website optimised specifically for IE”. He went on to bemoan the “powerful force” of inertia which ties so many users to Explorer.

Firefox users were almost universally favourable towards the new version, although a few party poopers warned that IE7 would incorporate Firefox’s most popular features like tabbed browsing.

“You may not like the might of Microsoft, but when they release something, you should fear the userbase outreach of the Microsoft coverage worldwide. Firefox will lose a lot of home users with IE7,” one CNET reader said.

But another replied that Explorer still had a long way to go to catch up.

“IE’s biggest handicap has always been the fact that it’s code is integrated into the operating system. Firefox sits on top of the OS lessening the opportunities for code hacks, worm, trojan or virus attacks.”

When Microsoft releases a new Explorer we may be in for the most heated browser wars since the Microsoft/Netscape battle of the 90s.

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