Bill Gates has a Google thing. When I asked him about the search competition last summer, he turned on the sarcasm. "We'll never be as cool as them. Every conference you go to, there they are dressed in black, and no one is cooler!" Clearly Gates's dander was up, not only because the Google upstarts were eating his lunch, but they were press darlings as well. Behind the rant was a taunting subtext: watch me. Bill, you see, had been busy figuring how to get his lunch back.

The first fruits of Gates's response are now ripe enough to consume. The beta version of MSN Web Search debuted in November, and this week MSN Desktop Search comes online. Though neither threatens to topple Google's reign, both are credible products. Not bad for an 18-month crash course in an area that the company had previously neglected with the complacency only a monopolist can muster. "It wasn't clear to me that we could catch up in that time frame," says MSN head Yusuf Mehdi.

I recently visited Microsoft's search geeks in their trenches and discovered a canonical Redmond jihad, fueled by "supersmart people who are really hungry," says search GM Ken Moss. Yet it follows the company's time-honored software-development traditions, including constant benchmarking, relentless user testing and unsparing reviews from Bill himself. Instead of snaring established search superstars (who weren't exactly eager to be hired), Mehdi and his search czar, Christopher Payne, tapped bright lights in-house. Some were diverted from Microsoft's stalled Longhorn Windows update. Other key contributors came from Microsoft Research.

It wasn't easy. For a while the new "crawler" that searched the Net to gather information could find only 24 Web pages. Ultimately that increased to millions, but when the total went to a billion pages there was another snag. "Everyone told us that when you have a larger index, relevance [of results to queries] will go up," manager Ramez Naan says. "Ours went down." Back to the drawing board for better search algorithms. Now the engine encompasses 5 billion pages, searching them at Google-esque speed and delivering useful results. MSN Web Search can also answer questions directly, drawing on Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia.

The Desktop Search beta product was the result of an even more compacted effort, a six-month sprint from bullet points in PowerPoint to the just-unveiled beta. It's an Outlook-style productivity tool that fits in the Microsoft universe so neatly that no one at the company can muster an explanation for why we haven't seen it sooner. "There's very little magic," says product architect David Dawson. "It does what you want it to do." In contrast, Google's product has the flavor of Web search; it allows you to search both the Net and your hard drive with one click--a trick that Microsoft says is too confusing.

This philosophical divergence is what makes the search competition a boon to you and me. Microsoft vows to match Google and Yahoo with a constant series of upgrades. Meanwhile, scrappy new competitors jump into the game, lured by Google's discovery that incredible riches can come from delivering ads alongside query results. They all hope to distinguish themselves by innovation. More choices and better searches for all!

Microsoft's ace in the hole is its ability to embed its search tools in future versions of Windows and maybe even Office. That's when the competition will get rough. But right now, Yusuf Mehdi and his tired team at Microsoft are happy that they've reached Milestone One in their effort to be cooler than the guys who wear black. However belatedly.