Before there was the web, there was the corporate database. Remember those days? Back in the mid to late 80s, when the Local Area Network was the Next Big Thing, when everyone was madly installing client-server databases, when applications like dBase III and NetWare ruled the roost? You don’t? Sigh. I must be showing my age. I was a cub reporter back then, covering the relatively new beat of “networking” as well as the corporate database market. Yup. Somehow I found that stuff fascinating. I thought this whole idea of connecting disparate networks of information was a hoot.
Anyway, to the point. About 1987 or so a new class of applications developed. Called Executive Information Systems (EIS), these were essentially interfaces to data, designed to live on top of corporate databases and cull the stuff Really Important Executives needed to know so as to make Really Important Decisions. The coolest part of the spec was the fact that the data was queried from the desktop – EIS promised easy and intuitive access those unintelligible databases the geeks kept buying. The idea was sexy, but the category never really took off. The design was too rules based, too top down. For them to work, you had to literally redesign your entire infrastructure. Oh, and the Executives in question had to give a shit.
Fast forward to now. As most of the world remains fascinated with search’s more public face, a significant shift seems to be occurring in the corporate data world. I’m not saying EIS is back, exactly, but the overwhelming presumption of webwide search on your desktop is certainly rewiring how corporations think about their more private databanks. A robust market has grown up around “enterprise search,” (some companies, such as FAST, were spun off from consumer search companies, and Google maintains a unit focused on the market). There’s a crop of interesting startups to boot, including Tim Bray’s company, Antarctica. It’s entirely possible some of the next big ideas in search may well be developed in this more focused, less public field. Any readers out there have suggestions of cool companies in this space I may be overlooking?