Microsoft announced today that it will give out a free version of its enterprise search product, dubbed Microsoft Search Server 2008 Express, starting next year. This is the latest in a growing line of "Express" products, which Microsoft hopes will get people hooked on Microsoft software and eventually buy more expensive versions. Microsoft also put up a test release-candidate version of Search Server Express for download on its web site.

Search Server Express shares nearly the same feature set as the company's more robust enterprise search products, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Search Server. Microsoft will also release a paid version of the product, which allows business users to search internal computer systems in addition to the web at large, that will basically be the same as the free edition but licensed to run on multiple servers.

"We really believe enterprise search is at a tipping point," Jared Spataro, group product manager for enterprise search, told CNET. "We really think people will look back on this time as the time when search went from just being a consumer tool to one that businesses can harness."

Because Search Server Express delivers web results from Live.com, a popular free enterprise search product could have a positive effect on Microsoft's consumer web search strategy as well. According to Spataro, only 1 percent of 6 million business are doing enterprise search. Microsoft hopes that a free and easily deployed search application will remove any entry barriers that businesses may have to hopping on the enterprise search bandwagon. Competition is stiff, however, with competing products being offered by Google and IBM/Yahoo, as well as a number of smaller firms.