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Yahoo said it was bringing the human touch to search this week when it launched a beta version of Yahoo Answers, a service where people can put in questions and get answers from actual people on any topic (actually on 23 main topics at the moment - not including legal or health matters, to the surprise of one blogger).

The idea is not new - similar services with a smaller user base exist such as Wondir.com and some library systems, while Google offers a pay-as-you-ask service also called Answers.

“This is not innovation; it’s an imitation, pretty obviously, of models like Ask Mefi, or perhaps Wondir - a play I’ve talked about a great deal,” wrote Umair Haque.

But Yahoo Answers looks set to capture the public’s imagination. Not only is it free to use, but it contains neat little features like delivering answers via RSS, one-click emailing and watch lists.

Already on Friday the site was brim full of queries ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous - from ‘how do I get my two year old to eat fruit?’ to ‘who is the smartest guy on earth?’ (I guess the asker doesn’t mean you, girls). Questions also ranged from the specifics (‘What is prog-metal?’), to fundamentals (’Is there a God?’) to existential cries in the void (’Who let the dogs out?’).

Just like life, there seemed to be many more questions than answers.

From many of the questions and responses it was clear that not everyone is taking the service seriously.

“Predictably, it’s already packed with hilariously stupid questions, many not fit to be reprinted on a family-friendly site such as this,” says the Bobnar blog, describing it as an amateur comedy site.

This leaves a few questions begging for Yahoo - what are their intentions for the service and how are they going to police it?

Yahoo Answers appears to be an extension of a concept their executives like to call FUSE (Find, Use, Share, Expand) and the company’s numerous efforts into online community building through new Web 2.0 services.

It is not clear whether Yahoo intends the service to pay for itself through online advertising. So far the site is ad-free, and while Yahoo has kept quiet on future plans for the service, one internet user suspects it will cost in the future.

Similarly, there is a question over the points system where good answers are awarded with emblematic points with no cash-in value.

Although Yahoo envisages this system as letting users know about active and helpful responders. However, Greg Linden on his Geeking with Greg blog questions whether this system could lead to people answering as many questions as they can as quickly as they can just to accrue more points than their friends without worrying about accuracy - becoming a form of online bragging for the terminally uninteresting.

Another blogger asks: “Is this a game or a real service to get answers from quality sources?

On current showing, the jury will be out for a long time on that one.

Yahoo has so far taken a light-touch approach to moderation - every question and answer column has a ‘report abuse’ link. In regards to “adult questions” - Yahoo say basic abuse patterns should be recognised and filtered out.

The company hasn’t revealed any plans to keep answers updated, or to deal with spam, scams and problematic users.

If anyone knows more about what Yahoo are planning, put your answers on a postcard - we’re old-fashioned like that.

Microsoft and South Korea fall out

Microsoft’s position in the South Korean market - or maybe South Korea’s position in Microsoft’s market - looked shaky after the software company was fined $31m and ordered to sell stripped-down versions of Windows.

Microsoft initially threatened to pull out of the South Korean market but later withdrew, saying instead it would appeal the decision.

South Korea’s Fair Trade Commission issued the fine against Microsoft after an anti-trust investigation which mirrored one carried out by the European Union’s competition commission. At issue in both cases was Microsoft’s practise of bundling other software programmes with its Windows software, which runs on about 90 per cent of the world’s desktop computers. Microsoft’s MSN Instant Messanger software and its Windows Media server and player all come pre-installed with Windows XP, which the FTC said blocked competitors and lead to a monopoly.

The US Justice Department’s antitrust division complained that South Korea’s remedy “goes beyond what is necessary or appropriate to protect consumers”.

ArsTechnica was sceptical about the merits of selling an IM and media-free version of Windows.

“Of course, Europe tried the exact same tactic, and we all know how well that worked out.”

South Korea however is demanding another type of modified Windows: one that provides links for users to download alternative programmes to Microsoft’s.

Research in Motion, NTP try mediation

Blackberry maker RIM has had a tough couple of weeks. Still reeling from its setback in a US court case that could see it shut out of its biggest market, the Canadian company suffered another blow when prominent IT consultancy Gartner warned enterprises to halt critical Blackberry deployments until the issue was resolved.

Until the case began looking dangerous for RIM, most pundits had never heard of NTP, a a privately-owned company based in Washington with 24 shareholders, including co-founder and patent lawyer Don Stout. Its main asset is a group of patents filed by another co-founder, the late Thomas Campana. In 2001 it launched legal action claiming that RIM’s Blackerry technology breached its patents.

In an interview with Canada’s National Post, Stout said anyone else in the wireless industry in the US could be a target for NTP, once the RIM dispute was resolved.

RIM also rebutted a claim by Stout that the two companies had not spoken since June, and said they were in mediation.

MySpace goes international

Myspace.com, the social networking and music service that is hugely popular in the US, is planning a marketing push in the UK, followed by similar moves in China and Australia.

Myspace was bought in September for almost $600m by Fox Interactive as part of News Corp chief Rupert Murdoch’s strategy to expand the group’s internet presence.

Fox Interactive president Ross Levinsohn said 1m of Myspace’s 40m users were based in the UK, despite the lack of promotion there - forgetting, perhaps, that the viral popularity of Myspace in the US is one of its most celebrated features.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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