Like Netscape before it, tiny Google has awakened a sleeping giant. Today, Microsoft unveiled a free MSN Toolbar add-on for the dominant Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser. The MSN Toolbar looks almost identical to the Google toolbar, which provides searching, pop-up ad blocking, and other functionality. Even the MSN Toolbar's download page looks almost identical to the Google toolbar download page. Analysts have been touting Microsoft's secretive moves into Google's search dominance, and the State of Massachusetts recently cited the danger to Google as the rationale behind its new investigation of Microsoft. But until today, the software giant has made few public moves against Google. But, like a lumbering military machine, Microsoft has now fired the first salvo in what could eventually be a multipronged attack on the lucrative Internet search market.
   "The MSN Toolbar enables people to easily access their favorite services regardless of their online location," Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft's corporate vice president for MSN Personal Services & Business, said. "By offering innovative services like the Highlight Viewer tool and seamless access to world-leading communication services like MSN Hotmail and MSN Messenger, we're helping people be more efficient online."
   Predictably, the MSN Toolbar provides quick access to several MSN services, including Hotmail, Messenger, My MSN, MSN Search, and MSNBC.com. But more MSN integration is coming in the future, Microsoft notes. "Google is really focused on just the search capability," Lisa Gurry, an MSN group product manager at Microsoft, said. "Certainly we'll be looking at all of the assets that we have within MSN as options for the toolbar."
   The toolbar also adds pop-up ad blocking, a feature for which IE users have been clamoring for months. (Microsoft is also adding pop-up ad blocking to the IE 6.0 update it will ship as part of Windows XP Service Pack 2--SP2--at mid-year.) And a new Highlight Viewer feature visually highlights words or phrases for which users have searched and presents search results in a small Highlight Viewer window, which floats over to the side in IE when users select the Highlight button.
   In related news, Microsoft's MSN unit is on a roll after years of rocky financials. In the most recent quarter, MSN sales rose 19 percent to $546 million, thanks largely to advertising strength and paid searches; in the previous quarter, MSN earned $58 million in its first profitable quarter ever. Microsoft's eagerly anticipated MSN search service will debut sometime in 2004, the company reiterated this week.
   The test version of the MSN Toolbar is available to users in North America. Microsoft will roll out the Toolbar worldwide in April.