"Who is Bill Gates?" I asked the new MSN search engine. I hit the return, waited a second and—whoops—read the top Web response indicating that Bill was a very nasty character prophesied by the ever-pessimistic Nostradamus. And thus the new MSN search engine flubbed the initial test I use on every new search engine. To pass the "Whos your Daddy?" test, the search engine must return an intelligent response when I type in the name of the search engine companys boss and ask who that person is. If I ask Google, "Who is Eric Schmidt?" I get the Google executive biography page. If I ask A9, "Who is Jeff Bezos?" I get not only a bio but also some nifty photos and an Amazon memo. While MSN Search did offer a correct answer in its Answer box, the top Web link out of 3 million results was the Nostradamus link, which I can say with great confidence—and full knowledge of all the kooks who will send me e-mail about this—is wrong.
In that wayward response from MSN Search resides, I believe, the problem associated with the search business. Researchers and product managers assume that people always want an answer when they search. I dont think so. I think Google has become one of those great pastimes that often serve no purpose other than to pass time. I remember once reading that a lot of shoppers heading into Wal-Mart go to the store with no specific product in mind to purchase. They just like wandering the aisles. (By the way, when I asked MSN Search, "Why do people shop at WalMart?" I was directed to the WalmartSucks.com site.) The aim of aimless searching is to enjoy the experience and not worry about the results. Creating a more precise answer, searching over a larger universe and bringing in nontraditional media types do not necessarily create happier search users.
Microsoft is going to have a tough time differentiating itself from Google. Im guessing that Google, meanwhile, will continue to advance into new areas such as browsers, VOIP and consolidated messaging.
The current search wars are also indicative of the difficulty of differentiating a product when the market leader (in this case, Google) defines the market. Whether it is trying to say your soft drink tastes better than Coke, your football team is better than the New England Patriots—an impossible statement—or your search engine is better than Google, you find yourself being compared with a market leader. I think users are much more receptive to new products that solve existing problems rather than new products that offer another solution to problems already resolved. But with the next tech war shaping up to be characterized by claims such as "Were more interoperable than the other guy," were in for more of the same. Recently, Gates issued one of his e-mail missives about the importance of interoperability, which seemed to me to state the obvious.
While the Microsofts and the IBMs remain engaged in trying to differentiate their search and interoperability products, the following describes some companies that do a great job of offering innovative solutions to real problems.
Power backup, power conditioning and server room cooling are big, expensive IT headaches. Building redundant backup sites around the country costs a lot. You can skip the redundant sites and hope nothing too bad happens. But the idea from American Power Conversion, with its Infrastruxure Express offering, is to have a complete data center with power backup contained in a semitrailer that can be driven to sites for temporary power or kept at a remote location for data center redundancy. Im curious to see if APCs model generates interest in the user community.
Digital certificates were supposed to help create security and transaction assurance on the Internet. However, issuing, managing and certifying the certificates is a large and usually labor-intensive process. A company called Venafi has taken on the task of applying enterprise management techniques to the certification process.
What Venafi does for digital certificates, Macrovision does for software licenses and usage. License and usage is a big issue for vendors and users, and automating the process is the first step toward getting control over your IT costs.
Editor in Chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.