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In an unusual hire of a senior outside executive, Microsoft said on Friday that it had recruited Steve Berkowitz, the former head of the Ask Jeeves search engine, to take over the running of its struggling online businesses.

The move also robs InteractiveCorp, Barry Diller’s TV and online commerce group, of one of its most senior internet executives. Mr Berkowitz joined IAC last year, after Mr Diller bought Ask Jeeves – since renamed Ask.com – to try to build a counterweight to Google and Yahoo!

At Microsoft, Mr Berkowitz replaces David Cole, the former head of the MSN business, who announced last year that he planned to take a leave of absence. MSN has been struggling with the decline of its original dial-up internet service business and its efforts to build search and other online services to compete with Google and Yahoo. The unit’s financial performance has continued to lag its competitors, most recently reflecting the decision to introduce keyword advertising from Microsoft’s own new AdCenter onto MSN.

Microsoft said that Mr Berkowitz would become senior vice president of its online business group, which includes MSN as well as the new Windows Live service, which was announced last year as an extension of the software company’s venture into online services.

Writing in an internal email, Kevin Johnson, co-head of Microsoft’s platforms and services division, said; “At Ask, Steve is credited with building the management team that orchestrated the turnaround of Ask.com, grew their user base, increased customer satisfaction, and gained share in the search market over the last year.”

A publishing industry executive, Mr Berkowitz first made his name building up the “Dummies” series of books, popular guides that have covered everything from computer programming to pet care.

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