Microsoft and Amazon talk Search

Microsoft Watch writes:

Rick Rashid, the senior VP in charge of Microsoft Research (MSR), touched on a number of ongoing search-related projects designed to “empower the individual” in which MSR is engaged. Advances in PCs, high-speed networks and high-capacity disk drives will foster the creation of new applications that will make information more available, more easily indexable and retrievable, and more contextually aware.

Rashid highlighted several MSR projects where search and retrieval play a crucial role. These included the SkyServer, which is a virtual telescopic observatory; the Worldwide Media Exchange, a centralized index of images, tagged by location; and Wallop, MSR’s blogging/social networking/document sharing application.

When it comes to making information easier to discover and deliver, the user interface becomes even more key, Rashid said. “We need to model the interface after the way people think and feel,” making use of concepts like memory, deep history and dynamic organization, he said.

To illustrate his point, Rashid revisited the MSR project called “Stuff I’ve Seen” (SIS). SIS relies on Microsoft Search to create an index of personal content, ranging from e-mail, to attachments, files, Web pages, calendar entries, journal entries, etc.

“Search isn’t the end goal here,” Rashid said, in explaining SIS. “The goal is information management in the context of ongoing work activities. Search happens within the app.”

Doing search doesn’t mean you have to try to recreate Google, said Udi Manber, CEO of’s A9 subsidiary, who took to the podium right after Rashid.

He said A9’s charter is to build new search technologies to improve user experiences, especially in the e-commerce search arena. And Manber who cut his search teeth developing an Amazon technology called “Search Inside the Book” was just as focused on the importance of the user interface as was Rashid.

“Ease of use is critical. But it’s also a huge barrier to (encouraging users to employ) advanced search techniques,” he said. “We are asking our users to play music on one-string instruments.”

In closing, Manber listed a bunch of “what-ifs” for those interested in search to ponder while cautioning that attendees shouldn’t conclude that the list had anything to do with A9’s future directions.

He asked participants to think about what they could do with an hour of undivided user attention, in terms of teaching them how best to use search. What if everyone became an “author,” he continued. “Given all the ways there are to author Web pages, blogs, digital images do we have the right mechanisms to publish and consume all of these?” he asked. And what if all published content (books, music and video) could be made accessible from a single place, even if it all wasn’t stored in one place?” Manber wondered aloud.

Internet News writes more about what Udi Manber had to say:

Think about how the Web has changed your life in the last 10 years. Now, try to extrapolate 10 years forward and you should feel dizzy. We’re still in day one of developing and innovating in search. There’s still a lot of exciting discoveries to be made,” Manber said in a keynote address at this year’s World Wide Web (W3C) conference .

Manber, who worked as’s chief algorithms officer before taking the reins at A9, predicts a future where the relevancy of search results will be measured and understood to deliver information to users.

“Search is a huge area and we have made a lot of progress but there are still a lot of things to be done. Despite all the advancements, the truth is that we still can’t find what we’re looking for,” he said, making it clear that his company was not trying to duplicate the work of Google.

“A9’s mandate is to build new search technologies to improve the user experience. We want to invent new things and new ways of finding relevant information. The first question I get from people is, ‘Are you going to build another Google?’ But, no, that’s not what we are doing. There’s so much room for innovation that you can build interesting things that aren’t available today.”

He said he believes that user-dependence on single-word search queries present a “huge barrier to advanced technologies” and called on developers and researchers to avoid the trap of giving up relevancy at the altar of increased speed.

“For most users, they expect it to be as simple as possible and that’s a barrier. If music was invented 20 years ago, we’d all be playing one-string instruments,” he said, suggesting that user habits needed to change to adapt to the advancement in search technologies.

Another hiccup for researchers, Manber said, is that the relevancy of search results is hard to measure. “Relevancy changes all the time and is not well understood. Relevancy is different from user to user. We have to figure out better ways to measure [results] to make it better. That’s the hard part. We need a science around measuring relevancy.”

“It’s not about speed or size anymore. It’s all about quality. It’s about delivering the tools that allow relevancy. It’s good to make searching faster and faster because that part is well understood. The quality part is not understood and that’s the challenge we face today,” he added.

WSJ carried a recent announcement on Microsoft’s plans:

Microsoft will soon release technology that takes search functions far beyond the Internet, allowing users to pour through e-mails, personal computers and even big databases to find the information they want, a top executive said Wednesday.

The system being developed by Microsoft’s MSN online division “will, as far as the consumer is concerned, be an end-to-end system for searching across any data type,” Yusuf Mehdi, head of Microsoft’s MSN division, told analysts at a Goldman Sachs Internet conference in Las Vegas Wednesday.

The new technology would be a huge step forward for users trying to grapple with an increasing amount of digital information, offering a one-step system instead of having to use several different search engines, file management systems or other tools.

“I think it’s fair to say that we will tackle all of the things that you expect, including PC search, as part of the MSN effort,” Mehdi said.

Joe Wilcox, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said the end-to-end search technology illustrates how concerned Microsoft is with besting rivals including Google, the current Internet search favorite. He expects Google to also release technology soon for searching the desktop.

The concern is that Google and others will increasingly encroach on Microsoft’s control over desktop computing.

“Microsoft is scrambling to protect its turf,” Wilcox said, noting that rival Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL) also has a more advanced system for searching both the Internet and Apple computers.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.