There’s a reason I love emerging technology so much: over the course of one hour, the entire landscape can be turned on its head. The rumor out of VentureBeat this afternoon, that Microsoft will acquire Powerset for $100 million next month, has produced the predictable memes: Microsoft is desperate after the Yahoo debacle; Powerset overhyped itself to bankruptcy and needs a bailout; Powerset only searches Wikipedia and we like Google just fine, thanks. While neither party will confirm the rumors, it now seems likely that something significant will happen in the semantic sector over the next couple of months. Having analyzed Powerset and semantic search extensively, I think we should keep a couple of key points in mind beyond the arguments over valuation and hype machines.
1) After years toiling in the uber-geek trenches, semantics just got uber-interesting. As I wrote late last week, the days of GoogleKiller.com – an ultimate destination search site to rule them all – are behind us. The next wave of semantics lies in plugging into already existing sites and products that desperately need a smarter framework behind them.
It’s now time to focus on the niggling details: how to identify and amass relevant information, present it to users in an easily consumable yet rich visual format, and, perhaps most importantly, establish a user base that will consistently turn to your product as a valued information resource.
Powerset just landed (speculatively of course) the largest user base in the world. Which brings me to point number two.
2) That massive user base won’t amount to much if users are faced with a complex, hard-to-parse interface. Though some disagreed, I viewed Powerset’s Wikipedia search as a changing of the game in search.
Once you’ve dug into the meat of a Wikipedia article with just a couple of clicks, zeroing in on precise actions and entities and going directly to their citations in the article, paging through flat hyperlinks just ain’t going to cut it.
Many viewed the Wikipedia search product as a disappointing launch from Powerset, after so many months of hype. They were focused on the wrong angle though, fixating on the language used to search rather than the results produced. (And I do blame Powerset for some of this, as previous messaging from the company fixated on search phrasing.) Asking Wikipedia where you should go for dinner tonight is barking up the wrong tree, no matter what engine you use. But what if you applied those same Powerset algorithms to your email? Or to Live Search listings? Or to the documents on your hard drive? Microsoft – or any other company wanting to throw its hat in at this point – sees the potential in Powerset’s algorithms, yes. But more importantly, that intuitive little UI the company threw on top of Wikipedia opens up a wide realm of consumer possibilities.
3) The talk of whether this is an over-valued deal is valid but, in one sense, it would be more than a deal between two companies. It would be an acknowledgement by the business sector at large that semantics’ time has come. That it’s time to take it out of the university labs and hands of the rocket scientists and put it in front of consumers for true vetting. Is semantics ready for that stage? I think it is. Will it look and sound the same after going through the billion-dollar-behemoth ringer? Probably not. But that’s the most exciting part of all.