Reports: Microsoft search chief leaving to form startup

Reports said Microsoft's search chief is leaving to form his own Seattle-based company.

The executive in charge of leading Microsoft's battle against search giant Google is leaving the company to form his own venture, according to published reports.

The Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday that Chris Payne, corporate vice president of Windows Live search, plans to leave his job and form a company in Seattle. According to the report, his departure is part of a set of changes in the organization since Microsoft appointed former Ask.com executive Steve Berkowitz last year as senior vice president to lead its online group.

Microsoft has declined to comment on reports of Payne's leaving, and his biography remained on Microsoft's Web site Thursday.

According to the bio, Payne is in charge of "delivering the best search experience for customers and helping them find the information that is important to them," as well as overseeing Windows Live Shopping.

Published reports did not make it clear if Payne plans to leave Microsoft for his own reasons or if the company is letting him go. However, Microsoft's search and online business has not been faring well against Google since Microsoft unveiled a plan in November 2005 to rename its search engine Windows Live Search and develop other Web-based services under that moniker in an attempt to take more of the online advertising market. The company at the time also announced a small-business hosted package called Office Live.

Just last week in a conference call financial analysts from UBS Investment Research said Microsoft's search business is "massively underperforming" against Google in both the incidence of search queries and in advertising revenue. They also predicted that the gap between the two companies in this market would not be closing anytime soon unless Microsoft takes drastic measures to ramp up its search strategy by striking deals with enterprise partners and finding legal ways to link its online offerings to its popular enterprise software products.

Revenue from Microsoft's online properties also remained relatively flat over the last fiscal year despite the company's increased investment to bolster this part of its business.

Before taking over Microsoft's Windows Live Search team, Payne was vice president of MSN.com, where he managed MSN Search, the MSN.com home page, MSN Autos, MSN Entertainment, MSNBC, Slate and the MSN Channels properties.

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