A Glimpse of Enterprise Search in 24 Months

February 3, 2015

The enterprise search sector faces one of its most critical periods in the next 24 months. The open source “commodity” search threat has moved into the mainstream. The value added indexing boomlet has helped make suggestions, point-and-click queries, and facets standard features. Prices for traditional search systems are all over the place. Proprietary technology vendors offer useful solutions for a few hundred dollars. The gap between the huge license fees of the early 2000s is, in theory, closed by the vendors’ consulting and engineering services revenue.

But the grim reality is that most systems today include some type of information access tool. Whether it is Google’s advertiser-energized model or Microsoft’s attempts to provide information to a Bing user before he or she knows she wants that information suggest that the human query is slowly being eased out of the system.

I would suggest you read “Replacing Middle Management with APIs.” The article focuses on examples that at first glance seem far removed from locating the name and address of a customer. That view would be one dimensional. The article suggests that another significant wave of disintermediation will take place. Instead of marginalizing the research librarian, next generation software will have an impact on middle management.

Humans, instead of performing decision making functions, become “cogs in a giant automated dispatching machine.” The example applies to an Uber type operation but it can be easily seen as a concept that will apply to many intermediating tasks.

Here’s the passage I highlighted in yellow this morning:

What’s bizarre here is that these lines of code directly control real humans. The Uber API dispatches a human to drive from point A to point B. And the 99designs Tasks API dispatches a human to convert an image into a vector logo (black, white and color). Humans are on the verge of becoming literal cogs in a machine, completely anonymized behind an API. And the companies that control those APIs have strong incentives to drive down the cost of executing those API methods.

What does this have to do with enterprise search?

I see several possible points of intersection:

First, software can eliminate the much reviled guessing game of finding the keywords that unlock the index. The next generation search system presents information to the user. The user becomes an Uber driver, executing the tasks assigned by the machine. Need a name and address? The next generation system identifies the need, fetches the information, and injects it into a work flow that still requires a human to perform a function.

Second, the traditional information retrieval vendors will have to find the time, money, and expertise to overhaul their keyword systems. Cosmetics just will not be enough to deal with the threat of what the author calls application programming interfaces. The disintermediation will not be limited to middle managers. The next wave of work casualties will be companies that sell old school information access systems. The disintermediation of companies anchored in the past will have significant influence over the success of search vendors marketing aggressively 24×7.

Third, the user in the Gen X, Millennial, and Gen Y demographics have been conditioned to rely on smart software. Need a pizza? The Apple and Google mapping services deliver in a manner of speaking. Keywords are just not ideal on a mobile device.

The article states:

And I suspect these software layers will only get thicker. Entrepreneurial software developers will find ways to tie these APIs together, delivering products that combine several “human” APIs. Someone could use Mechanical Turk’s API to automate sales prospect research, plug that data into 99designs Tasks’ API to prepare customized infographics for the prospect sent via email. Or someone could use Redfin’s API to automatically purchase houses, and send a Zirtual [sic] assistant instructions via email on how to project-manage a renovation, flipping the house completely programmatically. These “real-world APIs” allow complex programs (or an AI in the spooky storyline here), to affect and control things in the real-world. It does seem apropos that we invest in AI safety now. As the software layer gets thicker, the gap between Below the API jobs and Above the API jobs widens. And economic incentives will push Above the API engineers to automate the jobs Below the API: self-driving cars and drone delivery are certainly on the way.

My view is that this API shift is well underway. I document a number of systems that automatically collect, analyze, and output actionable information to humans and to other systems. For more information about next generation information access solutions, check out CyberOSINT, my most recent monograph about information access.

For enterprise search vendors dependent on keywords and hyperbolic marketing, APIs may be one of the most serious challenges the sector has yet faced.

Stephen E Arnold, February 3, 2015


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