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AOL (Netscape) Tosses Hat Back In Browser Ring

By - December 01, 2004

netscapeFrom The Standard (I still love being able to say that, even if the site is only running IDG newsservice stuff):

America Online Inc. (AOL) on Tuesday released a preview version of a new Netscape Web browser that is based on the open-source Firefox Web browser, but also supports Microsoft Corp.’s Internet Explorer (IE) browser engine. IE is part of Windows and is used by the great majority of Web users. Many Web sites have been designed specifically to work with the Microsoft browser and may not work correctly in browsers using other engines, including the Gecko engine in Firefox.

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Grokking Wondir

By - November 19, 2004

wondirSpent some time on the phone today grokking Wondir with its founder, Matthew Koll. Matt has a long and distinguished history in search, starting back in the non-web days (he created a text search engine in the early 90s which he sold to AOL in 1998) and running up into the present.

Wondir is, at its core, a question answering service. Wondir itself is more than two years old, but Koll only recently took the “beta” off the service and turned it into a for-profit enterprise. While there are loads of question answering services on the web, this one is different in some important ways. First off, it feels like a search engine. That’s intentional, Koll told me, as he feels the process of finding answers through chat rooms and usenet like forums is cumbersome and unintuitive. Secondly, Wondir aggregates questions and answers through the architecture of participation, essentially getting its questioners to become answerers, and vice versa. This is non trivial – getting people to answer questions is not as easy as it might seem. But Koll has thought through all of this, and I like where this service is going.

wondir2You don’t have to register to ask a question, but it pays if you do, because then your answer can be sent to you (and you can also tell Wondir areas of your own expertise, and it will notify you of questions that come in that you can answer if you wish to). When you do ask a question (in plain english), Wondir does a number of clever things. First, it parses your question’s text and categorizes it in any number of potential topic clusters. It then alerts registered users who have raised their hands as willing to answer questions in those topics, either through email, RSS (soon), or IM. It also posts the question right there on the service, in a scrolling ticker below the search box. Wondir has any number of categories in a pull down menu, and when you select a category, the questions scrolling across the bottom change as well (the questions in the “mature content” area are a hoot).

Now, that alone is not enough to get this service to scale, and Koll knows it. So he’s done a few more neat tricks. First, he’s cut vertical content site deals, distributing Wondir out into the web in areas where the expertise and the community lives, complete with the question ticker. For example, there’s a Wondir question/answer service at ichef.com, ratemyteachers.com, and icerocket (that new engine backed by Mark Cuban). Those more tightly integrated affiliates create scale and databases of questions and answers, databases that are then folded back into Wondir’s overall engine, meaning that the more questions that are asked and answered, the better the overall engine gets. Neat, huh?

It gets better, at least theoretically. Koll has also cut a deal with Six Apart for a Typepad implementation, which will allow bloggers to share ecosystems of question answering. So, for example, Danny, Gary, Andy, and I might have a Search-related Wondir implementation. Eventually, we’d be able to share revenue in that model as well.

Revenue? So what is the business model? Well, it’s paid search, of course. That’s the beauty of it. A site like Wondir, or its affiliates, is very intent driven, and very specific, making AdSense a natural fit. That might answer the major question I have about the service – why, beyond good kharma and self promotion, would anyone want to get in the habit of answering questions for free? (Although, I’m not so sure that being helpful isn’t in our human nature to begin with, and it’s cool to have a service like Wondir to test that theory. )

Of course, Google Answers has been around for a long time, but as Koll points out, you have to pay for those answers, and the business has a limited architecture of participation. Koll claims it’s doing only hundreds of questions a day, and Wondir, while still pretty much in stealth mode, is doing thousands.

Koll told me he wants to get the word out on Wondir, and hopes we’ll all bang on it and help him make it better. I for one plan on using it for a while, and I certainly hope the service hits a tipping point. The implications are pretty darn cool.

Bonus link: Chris Sherman did a nice write up of Wondir back in 2002.

Google Takes Another Step Toward Becoming Development Environment

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Just got this note from Google PR on the beta introduction of the Google Deskbar API.

Today, Google announced the availability of the Google Deskbar API
(application programming interface). This technology makes it possible for
software developers to build their own features, or plug-ins, for the
popular Google Deskbar.

For instance, a developer could use Google Deskbar APIs to create a movie
search command that enables users to search their favorite movie site by
entering a movie name into the Deskbar search field and typing a special
command such as “Ctrl’M.” Other examples include:

– Locate and play a music play list on your hard drive
– Solve algebraic equations
– Send instant messages from the Deskbar (example: type “AIM
– [screen name] [message text]”)

Results will be displayed within the Google Deskbar mini-browser which
appears to the bottom right of the user’s computer. New features developed
with the Google Deskbar API will be displayed as an option in the Deskbar
main menu.

The Google Deskbar API is in the experimental, beta phase. We invite
developers to use the service and encourage them to send us their input and
feedback. Plug-ins can be written in any .NET language, such as C# or Visual
Basic.NET. More information about the Google Deskbar API can be found here:
http://deskbar.google.com/help/api/index.html.

Google's Web 2 Demo and the UI Plunge

By - October 12, 2004

labs_logo2As many have already noted, last week at Web 2.0 Peter Norvig, Google director of search quality, demonstrated word clustering, “named entities,” and machine translation technology to the audience. The translation software was impressive, but somehow lacked zing – “good enough” translation doesn’t seem like much of a revelation anymore. That in itself is an extraordinary achievement – Norvig showed translations from Arabic and Chinese – both significantly distinct languages compared to English. Google already has translation features built into its engine (from a third party), but this hand-rolled stuff was far more powerful, it seemed to me.

In any case, the demos that really got the audience going (and me, to be honest) was the named entities and the clustering technology. Seeing anything behind the veil of Google’s real research and development is of course a revelation, but seeing something that was so clearly ready for prime time felt rather close to a declaration of where Google is heading, in particular given the recent moves in the personalization and clustering space from Amazon, Ask, Vivisimo, and Yahoo.

“Named entity extraction” is a relatively new project called which Norvig said Google had been working on for about six months. As Norvig explained the concept – essentially identifying semantically important concepts and the meaning wrapped around them – I couldn’t help but think of WebFountain and my wish (near the end of the post) that Google would add a bit of IBM’s semantic peanut butter into its PageRank chocolate.

Norvig also showed an entertaining (and live) demo of clustering, which he claimed was the “largest bayesian database of clusters” extant. Hmmm.

From the eWeek story covering the news:

For example, Norvig said, researchers are looking for ways to break down sentences by looking for a phrase like “such as” and grabbing the names that follow it. The goal is to not only pull out the name but also its clusters, so that a name such as “Java” can be associated both with the computer language and with language in general, Norvig said.

“We want to be able to search and find these [entities] and the relationships between them, rather than you typing in the words specifically,” Norvig said.

This has potentially interesting implications in next-generation ranking methodologies, for one, but combined with clustering, it signals that Google is serious about taking what one might call the UI plunge.

What do I mean by that? Well, of all the major engines, only Google has strictly maintained what might be called the C prompt interface to search: put in yer command, get out yer list of results (Google Local is a departure, but it’s still in beta). Yahoo, Ask, A9 and others have begun to twiddle in pretty significant ways with evolved interfaces which – by employing your search history, your personal data, clustering, and other tricks – deliver more filtered and intentional results (though it is still arguable if they are more relevant). I sense it’s only a matter of time before Google takes this approach as well, and Norvig’s demo certainly points that way. After all, it’s not that often Google decides to give us a glimpse behind the curtain, and coupled with Google Board member John Doerr’s semi-announcement the day before (he told the audience that Google would become “the Google that knows you”) I think the UI plunge might come sooner than we all expect.

If you want to know more about how Google is thinking about clustering, here’s a paper written by a Google team, courtesy of a link from Don Park.

Update: Lazy linking on my part, the clustering paper is about hardwaree (though it is really interesting…)

Some Caution In Web 2.0

By - October 10, 2004

Jason Fried of Basecamp/37 Signals reminds us to stay lightweight, and don’t believe the hype. I very much hope the conference, which certainly was upbeat, was not considered hype. It’s true, I focused on that which I found interesting, astounding, important, and new…which really does create a bit of novelty exhaustion, as Kottke puts it, over the course of a three-day event.

In any case, I certainly agree with Jason Fried’s advice:

My advice to these new companies with their new products and fresh-faced enthusiasm… Keep it small. Start small and stay small. Borrow from yourself before you borrow from someone else. You can have an impact with just a few people. You can build great products with a small team. You can do it on your own. You can.

Thanks, Feedster!

By - October 06, 2004

Really cool of the folks at Feedster to give the Web 2.0 feed such prominence on the home page, and to create an XML feed for coverage! Here’s the link, and thanks guys…It’s been a great event so far.

feesterweb.2

Web 2.0 Day One

By - October 05, 2004

web2Wow, what a first day. Amazing workshops, and then really fun sessions. Bill Gross unveiled Snap, a very cool new engine that you can check out here (yeah, Snap, uh huh, in an earlier incarnation it was a failed Web 1.0 portal from CNet and NBC). And then early Google investor and Board member John Doerr, in a great interview with John Heilemann, let us know that Google was not going to sit on its hands w/r/t personalization, in fact, he said there will be announcements very shortly about Google’s next phase of personal search. Also, Rojo debuted, and we still have Marc Cuban to go tonight…

More to come, and much more on the web 2.0 site, where coverage is aggregated….