Microsoft Live’s Ms. Dewey

* Microsoft Live’s Ms. Dewey, annoying but interesting

Now that Microsoft can see the light at the end of the Vista tunnel they are starting to apply more effort to other projects and one of their big drives for 2007 is going to be Microsoft Live.

Now exactly what Microsoft Live is going to morph into isn’t clear – so far the service provides Web search, mapping, e-mail, blogging and instant messaging supported by advertising. Sounds a little like Google’s online services experiments doesn't it?

Perhaps in the spirit of boldly going where no Google has gone before, Microsoft has quietly launched a new front end to Microsoft Live Search called Ms. Dewey.

Ms. Dewey (the name is presumably a nod to the Dewey decimal classification system) uses a slick Flash-based user interface built from Flash videos.

The user interface has a futuristic city backdrop and is “hosted” by the site’s namesake, Ms. Dewey, played by Janina Gavankar, a model and actress (apparently guest starring in upcoming episodes of “The L Word” on Showtime).

When you open the site, a Flash preloader is displayed. This is a taste of the polish to come with Ms. Dewey nudging the progress bar along with her finger. You are then shown one of a number of opening sequences. These openings all rely on the same kind of smart-alecky, cute, arch, and tiringly smug humor that is so massively overused in television and radio advertising.

Once the opening has concluded Ms. Dewey waits for you to enter something in the search bar. Should you not do so she will make arch remarks and finally “tap on the screen” and ask if anyone is there. Cute but irritating. After the tenth repeat, irritating is left in the dust and you will have to resort to loathing and possibly disgust.

When you do enter something, the code behind the user interface is clever enough to make remarks related to the content (yes, using dirty words gets a reaction).

For example, entering “dogs” got the response “they need house broken … men” the first time, “it’s a girl’s best friend” on the second, and “are you ready for some corn dogs?” on the third. The fourth and fifth times produced sarcastic comments such as “Somebody needs to get a hobby.” The first search for “cats” didn’t get a vocal response, just Ms. Dewey playing with a cat ’o nine tails!

I tried entering a nonsense word and Ms. Dewey asked me, “have you been at the pub all afternoon?” - which makes me wonder if there’s some British connection to the user interface.

The results are presented in a fade-in window on the right - move your mouse to the top or bottom of the results and they scroll; clicking on a result launches the link from the result in another window.

Here’s where Ms. Dewey definitely crosses the irritation threshold as her voice can still be heard “encouraging” you to enter another search.

Ms. Dewey also occasionally claims that “the more you ask, the more I will know and soon I will rule the world (mwah, ha, ha)” which implies that some kind of learning is going on.

The problem with this version of Ms. Dewey is that she won’t leave you alone and keeps pushing you to do more searches, which makes no sense as people don’t use search in that way.

I would hope that the next iteration will, for example, attempt to add value to the searches you’ve just made (“Here’s more stuff that might be useful”) and ask for confirmation to improve relevancy. Another improvement would be remembering your searches and offering follow-ups.

Of course, integration of contextual and general advertising can’t be far behind.

The site provides absolutely no details about itself other than links for privacy (a generic standard document), legal (a weird generic and somewhat irrelevant EULA), and feedback (which just takes you to the standard Windows Live feedback page).

This experiment is interesting as it would seem to be an attempt to create a personality driven service to fit with the pop culture zeitgeist - very clever and potentially powerful for consumer markets. Imagine the host being a really well known celebrity such as Martha Stewart or Paris Hilton fronting for a retail operation.

Despite the irritating “cutesy” Ms. Dewey persona the service is interesting and quite possibly indicative of a way that Microsoft plans to engage consumers.

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