“Millions of doors are lit by the rising sun, as residents replace peach-wood charms for the incoming New Year.” When he wrote this poem, entitled First Day, more than a thousand years ago, Anshi Wang could never have predicted that couplet composing would reappear in a digital age, with people “writing” using computers and mobile phones. But that is exactly what is happening, as traditional couplets have been brought to the Internet by the world's largest IT company, Microsoft.
On Jan. 12, 2009, the Microsoft Couplet System, based on innovations by Microsoft Research Asia, was officially integrated into Microsoft’s Live Search Spring Festival Release. The Search Technology Center Asia was the main engine behind the release, which combined a number of technologies from Microsoft Research Asia. Apart from the Microsoft Couplet System, this Live Search platform also included Train Ticket Search, the Spring Festival Transportation Information Service, and popularity rankings based on Microsoft's Renlifang relationship search. The Live Search Spring Festival Release helped one find almost all the timely, time-sensitive information sought by ordinary people during Chinese New Year.
It is common for people to have pressing transportation, entertainment, and shopping information needs during Spring Festival. “Microsoft introduced its Live Search Spring Festival Release on the second day of the so-called ’Chunyun’ (passenger transport) during the Spring Festival) in 2009,” said Dr. Jianying He, a consultant at the Software and Service Industry Research Center of CCID Consulting. “They had a straightforward target: the 2.3 billion trips taken by passengers using China’s gigantic transportation system, millions of clicks per day hunting for tickets online, and the more than a billion viewers that watch CCTV’s Spring Festival Evening Gala. Microsoft chose the best time to market.”
According to Jin Li, group manager at Search Technology Center Asia and leader of the Live Search Spring Festival Release project, the hectic two-month preparation before the launch of this service was a trip through “search culture” that turned Microsoft Live Search into a time-sensitive tool capable of presenting Chinese traditional culture in an in-depth way using innovative Internet technologies.
The Live Search Spring Festival Release was another theme-search service launched by Microsoft in China, following the 5.12 Wenchuan Earthquake Map and the 2008 Beijing Olympics navigation tool. “Live Search Spring Festival Release was just the start of Microsoft's search promotion strategy,” said Steve Macbeth, general manager of Search Technology Center Asia. “The company will take further steps to expand its share in the search market in China.” As internationalized as it is, Microsoft must heed the necessity for and dependence on localization in the Internet business.
Google, which shares Microsoft’s admiration for machine search, launched the Chunyun Map during the snowstorm-inflicted Chunyun in 2008, the first of its attempts to cater to the psychological experience of local users. People within Microsoft do not believe it to be taboo to discuss the company’s disadvantages in the search business as compared with Google. “Search service has to get closer to its users,” Jin Li says, “and to localize itself as much as it possibly can.” In fields other than regular searches, which are dominated by Google and Baidu, Microsoft hopes to launch products more competitive than those of the two search giants and to better meet the needs of Chinese users through the integration of its latest innovations in vertical search.
When a powerful multinational starts to seriously consider the needs of local users, the question of whether it will lead to alternatives for the mass market or a specialized product for a niche market becomes merely semantics.
Microsoft managed to incorporate a number of its vertical-search technologies into the Live Search Spring Festival Release, and the result was Web pages that reflected the essence of Chinese New Year.
Users could use the service to customize their home pages by entering names of the cities where they plan to celebrate the New Year; searches on the page were then automatically optimized to provide information relevant to the users’ location and desired destinations. The Live Search home page updated its background images daily, displaying a range of Chinese elements, from antique Chinese paintings and calligraphy to scenes of the paradise-like Fenghuang Town in Hunan Province. Users could learn about traditional Chinese culture by clicking on frequently searched keywords “embedded” in the background.
Recognizing how difficult it is to obtain tickets for all means of transportation shortly before and after Chinese New Year, the Live Search Spring Festival Release also provided a train-ticket search service, which featured customized, up-to-the-minute information on the availability of desired tickets. Using data-mining technologies from Microsoft Research Asia, this service was even able to provide information on scalped tickets, tickets available through agents, and outdated notices. Its “ticket availability notification” function provided updated information in user-designated intervals or sent the information to the user through e-mail.
Information offered by Microsoft Live Ditu and Real-Time Traffic also made it easier for people on the road during the festival. The map was able to inform drivers which license-plate numbers were not allowed on the roads on given days in Beijing, suggest driving routes, and provide weather information, among other services. Live Ditu was able to help users find the location of specific restaurants, cinemas, bars, or theaters, making it easier and more enjoyable to plan one’s holiday activities.
On top of all this, the Microsoft Couplet System created a type of dialogue between man and machine. Users could enter the first line of a couplet, and the machine automatically rendered a number of second lines from which the user could choose. The finalized couplets could then be sent as a blessing to family and friends via SMS. Using Renlifang relationship search, viewers of CCTV’s widely popular Spring Festival Evening Gala could find out more about performers and famous actors and actresses through the different ways in which they are connected and related to one another.
Users can be easily overwhelmed by the excess of information available on the Internet. Through the Live Search Spring Festival Release, Microsoft hoped to help people plan their entertainment activities ahead of time. It presented to its users things that other people were seeking or interested in, thus providing a navigation-style search experience.
Jin Li calls the integration of searches and commonly used information "exploratory search," and Microsoft's efforts in search-technology development is also an exploratory process.
Starting mostly from scratch 30 months ago, when Microsoft was calibrating its technologies for searches in Chinese, the company now offers vertical-search services that cover Web pages, images, videos, practical information, and maps. A number of innovations by Microsoft Research Asia — Renlifang and the Microsoft Couplet System, to name just two — have now been upgraded into more mature products. Whether it is with single-page limitless scrolling for image searching, filter-based locating, or preview functions for video search, Microsoft has repeatedly stated that all the search results it provides are generated entirely by machines, subject to no human intervention. With Microsoft Mobile Search being made operational earlier this year, mobile-phone users are now able to access functions and services that are fully comparable to those they would access on PCs.
"Today, Microsoft cares far more for its products and user demands than for its revenue in China," stressed Steve Macbeth. "Our previous attempt to cooperate and merge with Yahoo was merely one move of Microsoft Live Search to work closely with its numerous partners, which will by no means deprive Microsoft of its other alternatives in the search business."
“The market may not be ready yet,” Macbeth adds, “but we would like users to be aware of our presence.” Though still a rookie, Microsoft is moving up quickly in the search-business arena. If and when Microsoft Live Search goes on to become a star, the Live Search Spring Festival Release may be remembered as its breakout moment in China.