Search In The Post-Web Era

For more than a decade, the primary context of search was to access resources located on the Internet. Even before there was such a thing as the Web, early adopters used tools such as Gopher, Archie and Veronica; once the Web became popular in the mid-1990s, masses flocked to directories such as Lycos, Magellan and Yahoo and to first-generation search tools such as Hotbot, WebCrawler and Altavista. Later, Google came along with a radically improved method of weighing the relative importance of Web pages, and once it plugged in the monetization engine whose features were pioneered by Overture, what we know today as "the search ecosystem" was born.

For the past five years or so, this ecosystem has been remarkably stable, but it is about to shift again as the primary context for search begins to move beyond its traditional desktop-Web paradigm. Glimpses of this contextual shift were visible at CES 2008, which was chock full of announcements indicating that vast quantities of non-Web media will soon become instantly accessible through a new generation of consumer devices, each of which is capable of qualifying as an interactive communications device. Microsoft made big news by opening up Hollywood's content riches to the 10 million users of its Xbox Live system through agreements with Disney, MGM, NBC, and Showtime. Comcast, the largest U.S. cable provider, followed suit with an announcement that more than 1,000 HD VOD (Video on Demand) movies will be available to its subscribers by the end of 2008, with another 6,000 on deck for 2009.



Both of these significant announcements were the results of years of painful development. Microsoft has been working on its Xbox gaming platform for the past seven years, after experimenting fruitlessly with "convergence platforms" such as the failed "WebTV." Comcast and the other cable providers have been trying to deploy consumer VOD for nearly 20 years and have spent billions upgrading their infrastructure to provide the bandwidth necessary for high-speed, on-demand, HD transmissions.

What do these developments mean for search? Well, search will likely remain the primary interaction mechanism for how these new forms of content are accessed, but, as anyone who's used a set-top box or mobile device knows, searching in these contexts is often an awkward and frustrating experience. Much work remains to be done in this area, because these non-Web contexts do not easily lend themselves to orthodox search ranking methodologies (which establish authority primarily through popularity). In non-Web contexts, creating meaningful results will more likely be accomplished by weighing factors such as identity (who the user is), location (where the search was made from), search histories, and via a recommendation engine. Against this background, Microsoft's announcement of its intent to acquire FAST Search & Transfer (also announced last week) becomes extremely significant, because this company's efforts have been focused on developing search in those same non-Web contexts.

Of course, Web-based search will not be going away tomorrow, and all signs point to Google continuing to dominate this environment and to try to make new inroads into non-Web environments. But as more non-Web content becomes available and users increasingly rely on non-desktop access devices to find it, the balance of power may shift from those who dominate Web search to those who dominate the networks used to connect next-generation smart devices such as those seen at CES. Microsoft has carefully positioned itself to be a player in this new realm; for this reason, its influence over search in the years ahead should not be underestimated.

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