Fast Redefined: The 2008 Search Acquisition Does a 365

March 9, 2014

Figure skating, anyone? You can do a Salchow jump. The skater has some options. Falling is not one of them. The idea is to leap from one foot to another. The Axel jump tosses is some spinning; for example, a triple Axel is 3.5 revolutions. Want creativity? The skater can flip, bunny hop, and Mazurka.

But the ice has to be right. Skating requires a Zamboni. Search requires information retrieval that works.

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One should not confuse a Zamboni with an ageing ice skater.

Fast Search & Transfer has just come back from an extended training period and is ready to perform. The founder may be retired after an unfavorable court decision. The Fast Search Linux and Unix customers have been blown off. But, according to Fortune CNN, Microsoft has made enterprise search better. Give the skater a three for that jump called Office 365.

Navigate to “Can Microsoft Make Enterprise Search Better?” The subtitle is ripe with promise: “Updates to its Office 365 suite show benefits from a 2008 acquisition.” There you go. Technology from the late 1990s, a withdrawal from Web search, a run at unseating Autonomy as the leading provider of enterprise content processing, and allegations of financial wrongdoing and you have a heck of base from which to “make enterprise search better.”

At one time, Fast Search offered an alternative to Google’s Web search system. The senior management of Fast Search decided to cede Web search to Google and pursue dominance in the enterprise search market. Well, how did  that work out? The shift from the Web to the enterprise worked for a while, but the costs of customer support, sales, and implementation put the company in a bind. The result was a crash to the ice.

Microsoft bought the sliding Fast Search operation and embarked on a journey to make content in SharePoint findable. The effort was a boom to second tier search vendors who offered SharePoint licensees a search and retrieval system. Most of these vendors are all but unknown outside of the 150 million SharePoint license base. Others have added new jumps to their search routines and have skated to customer support and business intelligence.

Fast Search is what I call at “end of life.” The technology is ageing. Microsoft has been rumored to be kicking the tires of open source search systems based on Lucene/Solr. The reason is that enterprise search has continued to be a tough product to turn into big money. Big as in billions. Most of the enterprise search vendors generate less than $10 million a year in revenue. The systems with actual customers have been acquired by larger, often clueless firms, looking for a way to get upsell opportunities and a usable search and retrieval system. Indeed, the main feature of the enterprise search landscape has been the purchase of Exalead by Dassault, Vivisimo by IBM, ISYS Search by Lexmark, Brainware by Lexmark, Endeca by Oracle, InQuira by Oracle, RightNow by Oracle, Autonomy by Hewlett Packard, i2 Group by IBM, and I grow tired of making this list.

Microsoft started its acquisition process of Fast Search in 2007 at about the same time the allegation of financial issues surfaces. The deal closed in January 2008. In October 2008, the Norwegian authorities took direct action against the company. The conviction of the Fast Search founder this year ended the saga of “Enterprise Search Is a Tough Business.”

Fortune CNN either sees the world through PR provided eye glasses or the information in my files is just wrong.

What has Microsoft learned about search? Here’s one of the original Fast Search wizards explaining search:

“Enterprise data has been like a black box,” says Bjorn Olstad, corporate VP of Fast’s engineering team. “What we found is that the real value is not in the content itself — it’s how people interact with the content.”

Wow. Isn’t SharePoint a content management system? Did not Fast Search move into content management in the period after 2004. Now we flash forward to 2014 to learn that enterprise search is people interacting with content. What about finding the information to answer a business need in the first place? I may not want to interact. I may want to look up a fact. Do I want to change the fact? Well, that may be one modification the “new” Fast Search is supposed to bring to information retrieval.

The write up points out that Microsoft has 220 people “all working on machine learning, search, and other technologies.” Yep, maybe just making it possible to find information is not enough?

Here’s another amazing statement in the write up:

If it sounds a lot like other companies’ attempts to “socialize” the enterprise, it is and it isn’t. Yes, Microsoft has jumped on the bandwagon with Facebook-like enterprise social tool Yammer and other efforts…For Microsoft to succeed in the future, it not only needs to be cloud-based, but must use its assets to connect the dots, weaving together conversations and documents and presentations and serving it up in an easy-to-digest, easy-to-find and relevant context wherever employees are already working.

The paragraph could have been borrowed from Exalead’s pre acquisition marketing collateral. “Connect the dots.” Triple Salchow with a Walley jump.

My view is that Microsoft is going to have to come to grips with Fast Search’s uncertain point of balance. The third tier search vendors are likely to benefit most from Microsoft’s heavy handed repositioning of enterprise search.

In the meantime, has Microsoft influenced the figure skating judges in the enterprise search competition in March 2014? Should Microsoft be building a search Zamboni or trying to breathe new life into a skater who tried and failed?

Stephen E Arnold, March 9, 2014

Related articles about Fast Search & Transfer

Fast Search Founder Slowed Down, Then Stopped, February 10, 2014

Inktomi and Fast Search: Two Troubled Search Companies, One Lesson, May 8, 2012

More Allegations about Fast Search Impropriety, March 8, 2012

Search Vendors! FAST-en Your Seatbelts, February 25, 2010

Fast Search ESP 2009: Some Soft Information about a Hard Problem, April 20, 2009

More Fast Search Excitement: A View from London, October 16, 2008

Fast Search: Is This a Real License Document? June 19, 2008

A Turning Point in Search? Is the Microsoft-FAST Deal Significant? January 11, 20098

Thoughts on Microsoft Buying Fast Search & Transfer, January 8, 2008

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