Search Latecomers Talk Futures

Microsoft and Amazon's A9 won't discuss their near-term search plans. But they have plenty to say at the World Wide Web conference about their long-term search outlooks.

NEW YORK—Theres more to search than devising the perfect algorithm.

Two of the newer kids on the search block—Microsoft and Amazons A9 subsidiary—shared their visions for the future of search during their Thursday keynote addresses at the World Wide Web conference here.

Neither executive was willing to discuss near-term products or strategies. Microsoft Corp. is known to be prepping new search technologies that are expected to allow users to search seamlessly across their local machines, corporate networks and the Internet.

The new MSN Search part of the equation is expected to debut later this year or early next. A first version of the WinFS file-system subsystem will be integrated into Longhorn when it ships in 2006+.

And A9 recently unveiled a beta version of a new search site that builds on top of Google.

Rick Rashid, the senior vice president 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, MSRs 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 Ive 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 isnt 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."

Rashid showed off a couple of MSR projects related to SIS. One, called the MemoryLens, is similar to a SIS index that is built using dates and times as a key user-interface element.

With MemoryLens, so-called "Memory Landmarks" are events such as holidays, news stories and the like. He also showed a variant called "MemoryLens LifeBrowser," another research project that is exploring "thresholds for memorability."

"With more and more data, people need a mental context for categorizing," Rashid told conference attendees.


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