I have to say - your asking some great discussion questions here.
Ask did actually do a press release a few months ago saying that after extensive market research last year, they discovered that the butler image was confusing to the majority of the users they wanted to appeal too. They simply 'didn't get it' ? Makes you wonder what demographics they are trying to appeal to though, eh?
The AJAX technology was brought to us by Microsoft. Specifically, it's the httpRequest object that they opened up to the browser. It allows you to make off page calls to either the local or remote servers, either with or without xml or remote web services. Although, when calling remote pages, there is a security issue that you have to negotiate, that can be easily bypassed using server proxy scripts.
Anyway, it's another REALLY good hot topic question your posing. What the heck are the other 'big players' doing?
Well, Google has actually been doing more with it than anyone else for quite some time, although it's not instantly obvious. An example though is Google Maps. Thats an AJAX application. It retrieves the map images at the point where you need them, without the need to reload the page. The point being, and I realise some people struggle with the difference here, they don't attempt to load anything into the page that you don't need yet - and don't leave the page when they do it anyway. Um... did that makes sense?
Moving along, Microsoft has beta programs running for a host of ajax enabled applications, including hotmail live. You might have been invited to sign up for that recently?
Again, the benefit of it is (and this is just 1 example) that you can preview mail without having to open it in a new window or refresh the page. Using AJAX it's opened when you highlight it - more like the typical client server apps we're all used too. The net benefit being a faster, smoother experience.
We use ajax in our own development projects extensively. But, only another developer with an eye for detail would realise what must be going on. Personally, I think thats key. If the user can't tell you've even done anything - you've probably got the balance just right between design, function, and useability.
Yahoo!, as we've probably all noticed this week and last, is getting set to relaunch their portal and Yahoo! Search. I've not seen much of it yet, but from what I have seen - it doesn't look like there's anything particularly new in their offering. At one point, I actually thought I was looking at Google.
of all of them, it's actually MSN that interests me most. They've got so many 'LIVE' beta programs going on. They really are going for it in a big way - trying to improve the users experience, as opposed to getting extra clever with their algorithms. In fairness, if they aim to take a bigger share of the search market away from Google, it's probably the only way they'll manage it.
Lastly, and with respect to the bit about MSN, did you know that Google expressed concerns to the US antitrust authority over the default search in IE7 being set to MSN? Google themselves feel it's giving MSN an unfair advantage. hehe. The concern was dismissed though.
All juicy stuff!!