Microsoft redesigns

Microsoft has launched a redesign of its Web site.

A redesign of the home page may not be quite what analysts had in mind last week when they asked Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer about how the software giant plans to streamline its online presence.

Starting Wednesday, visitors in the US are being shown a new page -- although they may not notice it's new. The page looks mostly the same as before, except it now features a background photo that apparently will change periodically.

The photo features a few blurry squares that show up when a mouse passes over them. If the user hovers for an extra second, a box pops up with a message that, when clicked, brings them to a page with additional information, including maps and photos.

The current photo features a man on a long boat on an African river. The information squares point to photos of animals that live in Botswana and other facts about the country's natural features.

The design was well-received among customers trialing it last month, according to a blog post by Chris Rayner, senior product manager, and Zach Gutt, senior program manager, both of Microsoft's Live search user experience team.

Like the previous design, the page predominantly features the search bar and lets users choose to search images and videos. Links point to Web pages for Live maps, news and other Microsoft offerings.

"We think the new design is a great start, but there's more to come, with lots of interesting directions that we'll be exploring in our next releases of the home page," the employees wrote on the blog.

Analysts who asked Ballmer last week how the company might fix its confusing online branding to make it easier for users to find Microsoft's online services might be relieved to hear that there are more changes to come. Microsoft maintains both the MSN and Live online brands, and in some cases the same online services carry both names.

Ballmer said Microsoft has been working on a way to combine its online services under a single Web page. However, the new page includes links to and the Windows Live home page, so the current redesign hasn't addressed that problem.

Indeed, while the pictures might give the home page more aesthetic appeal, Microsoft is unlikely to gain ground against Google in online search and advertising until it clarifies its online services. In search, Google continues to hold a daunting lead over Microsoft, which runs a distant third even to Yahoo, the company Microsoft failed to acquire after months of negotiations.

(Elizabeth Montalbano in New York contributed to this story.)

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