Some people might be a bit confused by Microsoft’s recent $1.2bn acquisition of Norwegian enterprise search company Fast Search & Transfer, but it makes sense given that everyone is looking to see what the next generation of search is going to look like, and with Fast, Microsoft might have the answer.

I must admit that, although I always respected the company, I never saw Google becoming so successful or maintaining its lead in search technologies in the way that it has. Google is very good at returning answers on basic searches but it doesn’t go further; it is consumer-focused and the application of search technology within an organisation is going to be absolutely key.

Everyone can do basic search now but the business of going further and understanding the ‘semantic web’, that is using natural language for searching and understanding the tone and context of your request, will be critical to the next generation of search. Obviously, the core aspect of finding, classifying and indexing data is important but getting a system that understands emotion, background and other clues will be the necessary abilities that set the next search leader apart.

I’m an absolute believer in search as the next big wave in enterprise software. Think of it as the new middleware: it will become a layer that will sit across multiple systems such as CRM and ERP to help information workers make informed decisions. It will change and even replace knowledge management systems that never achieved traction because they were just too difficult and unwieldy to use. It will inform decision making as an adjunct to business intelligence, CRM and ERP systems. This is where it will be most powerful because data in these systems is semi-structured and therefore easier to search in a meaningful way. It will also replace portals that are really just glorified document management systems. If you’re a clothing retailer you’ll be able to see what sizes, colours and styles sell best, and where and in what conditions, for example. For vendors, the sell will be easy because firms will be able to demonstrate very fast productivity benefits.

With Fast and the complementary acquisition of search startup Powerset, Microsoft has some of the intellectual property needed to mine this seam. Powerset has an interesting approach to search that involves natural language processing rather than searching for keywords. It’s the next generation of the web and it will provide a more intuitive way to search. It’s all great stuff but none of it works that well yet even though it’s interesting to see Powerset work against a subsection of the web in the form of Wikipedia as its proof of concept.

I’m a great fan of Fast and I think it will give Microsoft an exponential leap in the search space. By tying search into SQL Server, SharePoint and .Net, Microsoft should be able to scale the technology and improve the search experience.

Google is pushing hard in the enterprise with its search appliance servers and it could fare well, but what it hasn’t got is the right commercial models in place. It’s a plug-in rather than a solution, and Google needs to partner, verticalise and open up its APIs. The more it opens up and lets others tap into the core engine, the better chance it will have. Google has recruited very heavily in the UK but a lot of its people have media and consumer backgrounds and they work on arm’s-length relationships. It goes back to culture, and search needs an enterprise software culture.

The bigger question is what the other enterprise players will do. Oracle and SAP will have to get involved and Autonomy, Endeca and Exalead are likely candidates for acquisition. IBM is already in search to a certain extent with its OmniFind product and Yahoo relationship, and HP will probably follow. Whoever wins, search is going to be enormous in the enterprise.

On an entirely separate note, it’s been very interesting to see the recent rise in popularity of low-cost laptops. The Asus Eee PC has obviously been hugely successful but a lot of the credit has to be given to the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. It has been a fantastic venture even if it did not quite deliver on the promise of a laptop costing $100.

The technologies and thinking behind the OLPC project are the real progenitors of the growing range of low-cost PCs you see now. In fact, the only thing that has held back some of these systems has been the insistence on running Linux. The way forward on these laptops is Windows because, if you look at the way people use their laptops, it’s often to work on PowerPoint presentations or similar productivity application tasks. For CIOs, the rise of this new portable category provides an opportunity to equip more of the workforce with mobility, and that’s a powerful change in its own right.

About the author

Mike Altendorf is founder and joint MD of Conchango, a consultancy that recently agreed a £42m sale to EMC