Will Microsoft’s ‘Kumo’ Replace Live Search?

Microsoft is in the midst of a shakeup in its online businesses with the aim of turning them into moneymakers instead of money sinks. That’s especially true for search.

The $64,000 question is how to do that.

Recent statements by CEO Steve Ballmer make it hard to tell whether the software titan still has any designs on Yahoo’s search business. In the meantime, with a weakened Yahoo, what can Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) do to expand its own dismal market share in search?

One component of its plans is to strengthen Microsoft’s search presence, perhaps by rebranding some or all of Microsoft’s search-related technologies and services.

That’s Microsoft Kumo to You

Introducing “Kumo” – whatever it is. No one outside Microsoft seems to know for sure.

After months of rumors, in late November, staffers at a Windows Live enthusiast site, LiveSide.net noticed that Microsoft had purchased the top level domain Kumo.com.

The buzz surrounding the name Kumo ticked up another notch earlier this month when Microsoft registered it as a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

If you were looking for clarity, however, the registration seems both specific and vague simultaneously.

For instance, it says the Kumo trademark may be used for branding “computer software and hardware; including computer search engine software and downloadable software. Additionally, it may be used for “advertising services including dissemination of advertising for others via the Internet, business services including providing links to the websites of others, [and] providing consumer and product information.”

The registration also says, however, that Kumo may be used to brand “education; providing of training; entertainment, including entertainment services via Internet search engines.”

Finally, Kumo may be used as a trademark for “design and development of computer hardware and software; computer services including search engine services and the providing of downloadable and non-downloadable software.

That certainly sounds like it might be related to advertising-supported search.

However, what does that all mean? Is Microsoft going to rename everything that it’s doing in the search and online advertising spaces to fit a new Kumo brand? That would not be without precedent. In fact, it would be similar to when it rebranded its consumer online offerings around “Live” beginning three years ago.

The rebranded Live Search hasn’t caught on any better than MSN Search before it, however.

According to the latest global search engine results from tracking firm Net Applications, as of Wednesday, Google Search had 81.1 percent of the worldwide search market. Meanwhile, Yahoo had 10.5 percent, and Microsoft’s Live Search and MSN Search combined pulled up a lame third with 4.6 percent.

Much as Microsoft has tried over the years, nothing has seemed to move its market share numbers upward.

So far, Microsoft is not saying what its plans are for Kumo.

However, if the company was looking for new branding, one analyst recons that Microsoft could do worse than rename Live Search to Kumo.

“I think the most important thing is that it’s one word, it’s simple, and it’s easy to remember,” Matt Rosoff, analyst at researcher Directions on Microsoft, told InternetNews.com. For example, Live Search is a better name than MSN Search, which it replaced, but neither really communicates as well as, say, RIM’s Blackberry branding with Pearl, Bold, and Storm, he added.

Other long-time Microsoft watchers have suggested that the trademark and domain names, as well as the description in the trademark could point to any number of branding scenarios. Perhaps, Microsoft will rebrand both the Search property as well as its Windows Live services with Kumo.

Others suggest that Microsoft might not even rename Live Search, but rather a subset of some sort.

That confusion is unlikely to be resolved soon, at least not before the Consumer Electronics Show in early January. CEO Ballmer will be giving his first ever keynote at the big consumer product-oriented show, so that might provide a platform for him to make some sort of strategic announcements around search, Rosoff suggested.

Another area that he highlighted might be a branding opportunity for Kumo is in the area of Windows Mobile which, he said, has its own branding problems.

Next page: A New Face Arrives, An Old Face Leaves

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A New Face Arrives, An Old Face Leaves

Meantime, in early December, the company hired a new online businesses chief from Yahoo earlier this month.

Microsoft announced Qi Lu will become president of Microsoft’s online services group when he starts on January 5. Until August he was Yahoo’s executive vice president of engineering for the search and advertising technology group.

Some observers have noted his engineering bent and suggest it may indicate a shift more towards a technology focus and less emphasis on marketing.

In what may be some indication that projection is correct, Microsoft confirmed this week that company veteran Brad Goldberg, the general manager of Live Search known for his marketing, is leaving the company. He will be replaced by another veteran, Mike Nichols, as of the first of the year.

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