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A sea change for search

Less than two hours before our inviolable press deadline, the news broke about Microsoft’s offer to acquire Fast Search & Transfer (FAST) for a reported $1.2 billion. Because the deal will likely forever change the face of enterprise search, perhaps the single most critical component of any knowledge management initiative, we felt obliged to, at the very least, report on the news. Please look to the March issue for a complete analysis of the ramifications.

The offer will be subject to customary terms and conditions, including receipt of acceptances representing more than 90 percent of FAST shares and voting power on a fully diluted basis, and receipt of all necessary regulatory approvals on terms acceptable to Microsoft.

IDC’s search expert Susan Feldman explains that in the past year, Microsoft’s SharePoint group launched a new suite of search products to appeal to the low end of the market (Search Server Express) and to the mid-market (Search Server). With FAST as a high-end product, Microsoft can cover the market. FAST brings with it some very nice technologies and products that will fit well with both SharePoint and Microsoft’s Live group of products. Feldman elaborates further on what the acquisition will bring to Microsoft:

Scalability to billions of documents. Search Server handles millions, not billions. FAST’s Web roots (it began life as AlltheWeb, a Web search engine) required scalability from the start. Large publishers and media companies, manufacturers and government intelligence organizations need that kind of scale.

Unified access to content and data. The FAST architecture has been at the vanguard of a new type of information access platform that includes both content and data, and delivers not just lists of documents, but charts, graphs and reports.

Ad Momentum. A monetization platform for search queries. Ad Momentum uses matching technology to match ads to queries and documents, and handle ad word auctions and payments. It was launched in 2007, and could become an important product with the right (Microsoft) marketing muscle behind it, as companies try to grab a portion of the multibillion-dollar online advertising market.

Contextual search. FAST has done some interesting research in how to improve a query by knowing something about the person doing a search. It has enriched queries with geographic location and with profiles of users. Like many other enterprise search engines, FAST has worked on both query enrichment (adding synonyms, for instance) and improved tagging of documents to find similarities.

Rich media search. FAST’s CTO, Bjorn Olstad, is an expert in image search.

Semantic features. FAST bought a linguistics research laboratory and has also embedded technologies from vendors like Lexalytics and Basis to provide multilingual understanding; to extract and tag documents with names of people, places and things; and to extract sentiment or opinions. Reputation monitoring is a new, hot area that uses those features.

Hosted solutions. FAST hosts search for some large publishers like Elsevier. Combining its expertise with Microsoft’s data centers could expand that business further just as interest is increasing in letting someone else run complex search applications.

Search consulting practice. The FAST Best Practices group brings expertise to Microsoft in customizing search for high-end applications.

European foothold. FAST is a Norwegian company with good market penetration in that area. 

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