Search startup Powerset is making waves today because it cut a deal with vaunted research lab PARC (of Xerox fame) to license some of it's natural language recognition technology. Powerset's twist on search is that it wants to introduce natural language queries, as opposed to today's keyword search. Now, natural language recognition is a very hard thing for computers to do, and PARC's research in this field is top-notch. But it may not matter much in the end.
This deal raises more questions than it answers:
1. Powerset launched last year pursuing it's own natural language search technology. Was it's home-grown technology not good enough? The fact that it had to go outside to PARC suggests it's in restart mode.
2. If natural language search is so important and PARC has the best technology, why didn't Google bid for it?
3. Even if natural language search turns out to be better than keyword search, how does Powerset plan to change the searching habits of millions of people now used to keyword searches.
People right now can improve their search results by putting in more relevant keywords, but they don't. Most put in only one or two words. Who is going to bother to type out, "How tall was Napoleon Bonaparte?" when you can simply type "Napoleon height" into Google (GOOG) and get the same answer?
I know I wouldn't. I am too lazy, time-strapped, and well-trained by Google to re-learn how to search.
Update: TechCrunch is similarly unimpressed with Powerset.
Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm and the Treo, has a new startup called Numenta that could be the biggest thing he's ever done. It is developing software based on Hawkins' model of how the brain works. I spent some time with Hawkins, and wrote a feature about Numenta in B2.0's latest issue. Just don't call it "artificial" intelligence. Excerpt:
Even today, computers don't have intuition. They have trouble recognizing images, understanding language, and dealing with ambiguous information. Humans have no trouble doing those things. We are intelligent, and computers are not.
Numenta's approach is radically different. Computers running Numenta software will not be programmed like regular computers. Rather, algorithms that Numenta has come up with allow machines to learn from observation, just as a child learns by observing the world around her.
Numenta is developing a new computer memory system that it says can remember the patterns of the world presented to it and use them, the way a human does, to make analogies and draw conclusions. If it works as Hawkins expects, the applications and business opportunities will be stunning. They could range from the mundane - helping radiologists or airport security officers to read X-ray images, predicting machine failures in factories, improving manufacturing yields at chip plants - to the mind-boggling: predicting tornadoes and stock prices, making smart cars, unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos. "I know this has to work because this is how the brain does it," Hawkins says.
(Photo illustration by Kevin Irby).
Update: Here's a six-minute video I shot of Jeff Hawkins explaining what Numenta is all about, how he plans to make available a free research license of his software soon, and why there is little danger that his intelligent machines will one day take over the world:
And here is another four-minute clip of him explaining his theory of how the brain's neocortex works:
In a direct appeal to consumers who feel shackled by the digital-rights management (DRM) copyright protections that come with each song bought from the iTunes Store, Apple CEO Steve Jobs calls for an end to digital DRMs. But he points out that it is up to the music companies that license their music to Apple to lift the current restrictions. In a letter on Apple's Website titled "Thoughts on Music," Jobs argues:
Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.
Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. . . . In 2006, under 2 billion DRM-protected songs were sold worldwide by online stores, while over 20 billion songs were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves.
. . . So if the music companies are selling over 90 percent of their music DRM-free, what benefits do they get from selling the remaining small percentage of their music encumbered with a DRM system? There appear to be none. If anything, the technical expertise and overhead required to create, operate and update a DRM system has limited the number of participants selling DRM protected music.
There is no question that the restrictions imposed by DRM software cripple the digital music experience because you can do less with your digital music than you can with the same songs bought on a CD. For instance, you can play it on as many devices as you like, and anywhere you like. Perhaps iTunes is getting to that point of critical mass where consumers are starting to complain. DRM is something that was conceived by lawyers, not by people who love to make great products for consumers. While he is not the first to suggest this move (Amazon is thinking about it and so is at least one record label), Jobs is right. It's time to kill the DRM.
But why the public appeal? I can only speculate that Jobs has tried this argument out on the record companies, only for it to fall on deaf ears. So now Jobs is saying, in effect, "I know the DRM weakens the iTunes experience. But don't blame me. Blame the record companies."
Don't worry Mr. Jobs. We already do.
Taking on Apple's iTunes Store and Amazon's Unbox, Wal-Mart (WMT) opened its video download site today, the first to include movies from all six major studios. It's nice to have negotiating clout. Prices range, but a recent release like Talladega Nights costs about $15, the same as it would on Amazon Unbox (iTunes does not carry Talladega Nights, but it's movies cost the same). All movies are download-only. There are no $4 digital rentals, as there are on Amazon—which come with tons of restrictions, but at least you have the option.
If the budding digital distribution of movies and TV shows depends on price alone, then it will be difficult for anyone to compete with Wal-Mart. But technology companies like Apple and Amazon have a chance in this race because they can offer digital extras that Wal-Mart will always be trying to catch up with. Apple (AAPL) has a lock on selling movies and TV shows to people who want to watch them on their video iPods or soon-to-ship Apple TVs. Amazon (AMZN) is a natural place to look for movies when you are browsing online, as is Netflix (NFLX). But Wal-Mart? It's not the first place I think of when I want to find downloadable digital entertainment.
If they can beat the pants off of everyone else on selection and price, that might change. But it's only a matter of time before everyone else fills out their online inventory to include all the major studios and every TV show on the planet. After all, there are no physical inventory costs, and the media companies will eventually want to distribute their videos in as many places as they can.
So that leaves other bells and whistles like seamless integration with the hardware on which you are going to watch the videos (Apple), the option to rent content that later will digitally disappear (Amazon), or making digital versions free with an existing DVD rental subscription (Netflix). These other companies will always out-innovate Wal-Mart because they have more at stake. At least Wal-Mart is smart enough in this case to outsource the technology behind its video download store to HP. Still, the video download business will be nothing but a freckle on a rounding error for Wal-Mart for years to come.
But one thing's for sure: the movie download business is quickly taking on the trappings of a mainstream business. All it needs now is paying customers.
Picking up on online clues, some bloggers are speculating that one of Google's next products will be an online presentation software codenamed Google Presently. Like Writely (the startup Google bought which became part of Google Docs and Spreadsheets), Presently is expected to be a webtop application you can access from your browser. It would round out Google's other Webtop offerings to directly compete with Microsoft's Office (the desktop suite of applications which includes Word, Excel, and PowerPoint).
Google Office will never be a responsive or fully-featured as Microsoft Office. But that is besides the point. Most people don't use half the features in Office anyway. The ability to access your documents from anywhere and share them more easily with other people is what will draw people to these webtop apps. For instance, I hardly ever use Excel, but just today I was using Google Spreadsheets to create an invite list for an upcoming B2.0 event that other colleagues will need to see and add to themselves. That single feature—the ability for everyone to literally work off the same page—more than makes up for its sluggishness and lack of other features.
It's high time Microsoft answered back with a version of Office Live worthy of the name.
That's right. Keep your eyes on the commercial from GoDaddy.com, a big sponsor of the videoblog DIggnation co-hosted by Digg founder Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht. Both of them are in the ad, which starts with a guy walking through an office, then he opens a door where the GoDaddy girl is dancing on a table. There's some weirdness going on in there, and Rose and Albrecht are in the crowd. I'm telling you, videoblogging is about to go mainstream.
Rose, of course, caused a bit of a stir today when he announced that Digg will no longer list its top contributors. The move is intended to make it harder for marketers and others to game the system by, for instance, trying to pay the top Diggers to post stories about their products. It may also be aimed at competitors who try to steal away the most active Diggers. Never mind that a < ahref="http://www.efinke.com/2007/02/02/top-diggers-list-is-back/">Netscape employee quickly put up a screen-scraping hack that lists the top 100 Diggers anyway. What got lost, though, was Rose's hint that Digg is about to launch new ways for its 900,000 regstered users to connect with each other. In other words, Digg might become more like a social network focused on discovering news and other media on the Web.
(Hat tip to Laughing Squid for this great photo of Rose. Love the caption too: "Kevin Rose Planning World Domination." Kind of says it all.)
Some of the other B2 bloggers have been covering some of the startup launches coming out of DEMO:
You can read Michael Copeland's full coverage on Zink (mobile printing), Eyejot (video messaging),and Total Immersion (3-D graphics-video mashups).
Michal Lev-Ram covers some of the mobile launches (like Mobio—an impressive mobile mashup company I've been meaning to write about).
And Paul Kaihla wtites about My-Currency, a predictions market for real estate prices.
(Read/Write Web has a nice list too).
Here's a story you won't find on Valleywag. Apparently looking for some free publicity, an employee of Gawker Media (Nick Denton's blog empire that includes Gawker, Gizmodo, and Valleywag) has been posting copyright-infringing clips on YouTube from CNN, Comedy Central, NBC, and others. (Here's his YouTube page).
Before many of the clips, he inserted a two-second ad promoting one of several Gawker Media blogs. For instance, here's a stolen clip from the Colbert Report with a promo for Valleywag (didn't Viacom, which owns Comedy Central, order all of its videos taken down from YouTube?). Here's one from a local NBC newscast about the recent Aqua Teen Hunger Force guerrilla marketing scare in Boston witha Gizmodo ad.
But it's Gawker Media's own guerrilla marketing tactics which may now put it in hot water. It's one thing when some teenager puts up a pirated clip of the Daily Show. It's quite another when an employee does it to promote his company's products. Lots of people will watch clips from the Daily Show or bits of sensational news. So why not throw an ad in front of the pirated clips and get some free viral marketing out of it? Dumb move. (Caveat: we still don't know whether the Gawker employee was doing this on behalf of Gawker Media or on his own. Gawker Media founder Nick Denton hasn't said one way or the other).
For someone who likes to gossip, Nick Denton is being awfully quiet about this one.
Update: Denton sent me an e-mail with this link, which is his response to the original report cited above. It's not on Valleywag or any of his other blogs, but buried on Denton.org. He confirms