An Interview with Michael Weiner
Mike Weiner was one of the early beneficiaries of desktop search. He realized that hard drives and the information on them created finding problems for users. In the days of MS DOS, search tools were limited. Unix had grep, but the other personal computer operating systems lacked search tools or offered tools that were difficult for users to use. He brought a product called Gopher to market via his company Microlytics.
Mr. Weiner moved forward in content processing and search, leading a major investment bank's efforts in natural language processing and "smart search." Mr. Weiner keeps a close eye on innovations in search, and he manages his current business interests using a range of search tools. I spoke with Mike Weiner on his recent visit to Louisville, Kentucky, where he was addressing a group of business professionals about information technology.
Where did you get the idea for Gopher? What did you accomplish with that product?
Gopher came about when I met some Ph.D. scientists who had built an incredibly fast search algorithm that eliminated the need for indexing. Back then, when people had relatively slow computers and disk drives, and indexing took a long time and a lot of then scarce disk space, Gopher's ability to rip through documents at high speed represented an opportunity for everyone to have a low cost utility for finding things.
It just seemed like something people would want to have, and it also seemed like a technology we could also sell OEM, that is, bundle with word processors, along with our Word Finder thesaurus and spell checkers.
What was the technology behind Gopher's very fast indexing and search?
Gopher's technology did not index, it opened and ripped through documents at incredible speed using algorithms written by our technology partners using tricks that bypassed the slow components of the operating system. I actually didn't know quite how they did it. It just ripped, and I felt confident that the technoguru journalists of that time, Jerry Pournelle, Michael Lewis, et al, would get it, and cover it. That was part of our strategy at Microlytics, to develop technologies that serious writer/users would want to have.
How do today's desktop search systems stack up against a product that is now about 20 years old?
Well, the world has made a lot of progress, I am happy to report. I use Google Desktop, which takes what we had 20 years ago to a whole new level, as it indexes in real time, in the background, with minimal disk overhead and system resources. And it is free, being a Google gadget. It's not really advertiser supported, if you think about it, it's supported by a company that is advertiser supported, and intent to change the world. I started Manning and Napier Information Services developing the DR-LINK natural Language search engine at the same time as Google started up. I had no idea there was such a rip in the fabric of the universe as Google brought to the world. I knew something neat was up when I saw that one line interface. But I really had no idea. So I am happy to be an end user given the world that has emerged. There are great opportunities, but there are not the gaping needs that existed back in the '80's and '90's.
Where do you see desktop search technology heading?
Well, the desktop of today and tomorrow are connected to the "world." So there can be very clever background processing done on your behalf that can leverage off the information you access and the information you create. The question will be, what's useful and important to you, and can the system fetch, or generate, this, for you, and in an efficient form you can cognitively benefit from. One of the next potentials for incredible retrieval will be intelligent "information extraction." It is possible to rip through documents extracting who hired who, who fired whom, who sued whom, who collected, who libeled, who praised... This has been a dream of the intelligence community for years, and they often plant the seeds for great information technology advancements. This capability is now fully functional and quite remarkable. And it's scalable. No one yet has pulled together into a useful utility, on the desktop, and on the web. It's going to happen, and when it is, the ability to combine this with the search we are already using will be a quantum leap, and very digestible. I can't wait.
What's your interest in epaper?
I saw my first experimental, high contrast, reflective display in the 1980’s, and it was clear it had the potential to have very exciting capabilities for electronic publishing. It has taken twenty years to get it to the point that it is now deployed in the Sony e-book, and Amazon’s Kindle. The recent incorporation on the cover of Esquire’s 75th Edition, while itself not a high content application, it is definitely a harbinger of thinks to come, and clearly, they get the bigger picture.
Is the technology able to deliver acceptable resolution?
Absolutely. The primary advantage for text is the light is reflected off the page, as with a book or magazine; there are no scan lines that cause some people discomfort; and there is no power used when the page is unchanging, as with a book or magazine page. And the resolution has been improving, as has the ability to deliver color.
How does the Amazon type device fit into the equation? How does Amazon's hype match the estimated 250,000 units sold?
Yes. Amazon has, as might be expected, really got the e-book idea down. It’s thin, light, wireless, seamlessly connected, and most important, it is linked to a constant flow of valuable content. And, you have to see and use the display to appreciate it as a book reader.
What about Sony? I have heard their device is too expensive and is not selling at the Amazon level.
There have been so many tries. The Sony device is cool, but Amazon has the benefit of its vast loyal audience. It’s similar to how Apple’s I-POD was benefitted by their having put up I-Tunes, and got the format, the content range, the pricing, all dead on. The consumer electronics business is a high risk, high turn, business filled with chic and vogue. Amazon is a unique gathering place of the nation’s readers.
The Xerox demo of 300 spots per inch has disappeared from my radar. Was that too high resolution to be practical?
The higher the resolution the better, for the eye. When laser printers went from 300 d.p.i. to 600, people loved it. This display is the same. Xerox’s innovative gyricon technology first had to move from the lab at Xerox PARC to an entrepreneurial venture, and as with many of their innovations, that is a tough chasm to cross. There was a JV with another big company, and the various challenges. As the market develops, that technology still has potential.
Esquire magazine used an eink cover with a flat battery to add juice to its newsstand sales. Is this a typical application or a gimmick?
It’s neither. It’s a statement by a bold publisher about the future of publishing. The future was the theme of the issue and it predicted many other developments. The display just has a few words and graphics coming up. But the real value of their effort is in the future. It was the vice chairman of Ziff Davis, then publishers of PC Magazine, that brought it to my attention, that you can only make a magazine so thick, or customers won’t like it. That limits not only the content, but the ad space. With a display of the size and quality of Amazon’s Kindle, if that were built into a magazine, every advertiser could add gads of content and information about their products, without the magazine growing thicker. The key here is the revenue can now grow exponentially.
And, there is another level, the one that I think will revolutionize publishing. Imagine if Kindle’s, and device like them, continue to grow, and there are eventually millions of users. This will happen, in my opinion. Now imagine you buy Fortune or Esquire, and it can load its information on your device, in addition to retaining its proven format as a print publication. It will be this transference of content from paper book to e-book, that has the most potential. It couldn’t in the past. The costs were too high. But today, megabytes of memory cost only pennies.
The key is to the interface. And Esquire is spot on, conceptually. Putting power, they actually placed 6 batteries in the cover to allow the display to blink all the time, but that won’t be necessary when there are pages of content. The key is to have additional, enhancing information in the publication that benefits having electronic content and retrieval. Some people say the Internet obviates this medium, but I don’t think so. The book and magazine are attractive user interfaces of content, Or, if the magazine could link to the Kindle, Which I expect will happen.
The epaper displays I have seen cannot handle graphics very well. The Amazon and Sony 16 shades of gray turn diagrams into fax image quality. Is this image rendering likely to improve in the next year, maybe two?
Yes, definitely. It’s more about cost than capability. I’ve seen these displays in prototype form doing amazing real time video. Kent State Display Technology showed this off ten years ago. This will come, but the immediate market is non-blinking, non-scanning, readable text that does not require backlighting. It reads like a book.
Publishers are facing some hard choices. How will epaper breathe new life and revenue into these "dead tree" organizations?
It’s a bit like the web. You’ll know it when you see it. You’ll want to play with it, use it, buy it, and have more of it. The publishers that match their audience with this capability and do a good job of implementation, will garner readers and advertisers.
Google has publishing potential. The company is an end to end information system. With or without epaper, will publishers have a chance if outfits like Google disintermediate them?
Yes, that would be cool. Wireless Google on a Kindle. I think it all adds to the excitement and creativity. Nonetheless, when you are getting on a plane or a train, sometimes a magazine feels good. And staring at your computer sometimes gets old. And heavy. And you have to plug it in. And make a connection. The ongoing convergence is not just congruent. It moves around. Look at the Palm, and then the Blackberry. Consumers spent a lot of money and showed a lot of preference, but, the beat goes on.
What's the patent situation for the epaper, eink, and flexible display sectors?
Like most emerging technologies, there are lots of patents, some pivotal. But patents alone do not make a market. I was early into this world, and I have some early patents that impact this market. But that’s not the same as product, or content. It’s a blend. Without valuable IP people don’t have the incentive to make these expensive investments. E-Ink needed much more than IP to get Kindle and Sony’s order. But their IP helped as well. Here are two of our patents that I’m proud of, that teach a lot about this new form of media, and ways to engage it.
The USPTO have been labeled as dysfunctional. Are patents in the "e" space likely to be deemed valid?
Yes, the PTO is swamped, and underfunded. But they are not dysfunctional. I see more rejections for patents I’ve applied for than approvals, and we’re on the bleeding edge. I have 29 issued patents, and worked hard for everyone of them. What amazes me is a patent like the first of the two above is just now issuing, end of 2008. I filed the application in 2000! I think the lag in processing, posed against the fast movement of technology, is a problem that we should fix.
As you look ahead, what do you see the major trends in "e" display technologies being in 2009?
I think we’ll see progress, and that the real sea changes will be a bit further out, as publishers get their minds around these technologies and find the ones that will sell books, magazines, and newspapers. I see epaper heavily used in educational publications, where children and learners have questions, need definitions, etc. You may see a speller and thesaurus, and translation technology coming bundled on books with electronic chips in them. And Kindred’s may have these valuable reference tools on board. I can see Kindle like technology that comes not only with books, but an I-POD/I-Tunes module; and a digital tape recorder, FM-AM radio; and Blackberry/Palm software, all converging. People have been predicting this for years. The beauty of the free market is the combination of creativity, diversity, and the occasional making of the big bucks by the pioneers who keep stepping up to bat with a new angle, a cooler tool. Faster, better, cheaper. As with e-ink.
The innovators in search have useful insights to offer about information access. If you want to know more about Mike Weiner's most recent interests, navigate to www.tillc.com .
Stephen E. Arnold, January 6, 2009