The relationship between enterprise search company Autonomy and video search company Blinkx has always been confusing. PaidContent.org now reports that the "weirdly secretive relationship" (I agree) is getting clearer. Autonomy is to exercise an option to take over Blinkx, then appears to be spinning some consumer-facing search technology that its owns (and I believe Blinkx was licensing) into an independent company Blinkx, that will go public in London.
Autonomy doesn’t have any consumer-facing products, as best I can tell. Here, you look and try and find them. In the late 1990s, it pitched "agent" technology that was going to bring back items of interest to searchers. That never took off. Then in 2000, it offered this odd Kenjin tool that would analyze what you were viewing and offer suggestions. That never gained acceptance.
When Blinkx first came out, it was like Kenjin with a new name. As I wrote at the time:
Want to search your hard drive? Blinkx is designed to do this, plus provide the ability to search the web, as well. It’s similar to what many expect Microsoft will one day try to do or that Google itself is rumored to be doing.
I’m wary of tools like Blinkx that are pitched as if they will eliminate keyword searching. Kenjin was exactly such a tool that Autonomy rolled out back in 2000 promising to put "search engines in the dustbin," in one PR quote that I recall. Read the release [NOTE: no longer online] from the time for more hype about how our lives were going to change.
The idea was that you’d show Kenjin a "perfect" document, then have it go out and find others that matched. Kenjin failed, and the reason is pretty clear. How do you show it the perfect document, if you don’t have it to show already? I know — you use a search engine!
Blinkx is apparently using some of Kenjin’s technology, plus resurrecting some of that hype — but this time, a search box is also present. Reviews of the products can be found here. Gary Price has a nice long rundown here, and there’s a recent Boston Globe review here.
I downloaded a copy but couldn’t get it to work — you might have more luck. The site also offers an interesting online search feature for those with broadband connections, with some fun visualization tools to play with.
Some time after that, Blinkx transformed into a video search tool. Along the way, poor Gary Price tried to figure out the relationship between the two companies, getting this statement from Blinkx CEO Suranga Chandratillake:
Autonomy is not one of blinkx’s shareholders. We [blinkx] enjoy a close relationship with them (Autonomy) but that’s because (I was there for years (including as US CTO) and have lots of friends there, (b) we are an OEM customer of theirs, and so depend on them in a number of ways technologically. Under the terms of the OEM agreements, under certain circumstances, Autonomy does have an option to invest in blinkx.
So now Autonomy seems to want to exercise that option, no doubt looking at the $1.65 billion Google paid for YouTube and wondering if it can tap into some of that money. But what is this consumer stuff beyond Blinkx that the Autonomy press release talks about:
Autonomy’s consumer division is formed from Autonomy’s research and development related to the application of Autonomy’s award-winning IDOL technology to the consumer space, and blinkx.
Here’s background on IDOL. From what I can tell, it goes back to some of the text analysis technology used in the Kenjin product, the original Blinkx tool and no doubt some of the text analysis that Blinkx does as part of video transcription search.
The FT article says that "Blinkx will be given exclusive rights to the technology, everywhere outside China." I think this means exclusive for consumer facing products, since Autonomy still seems to use this technology for its core operations
The FT article also says "Autonomy’s technology does not rely on text and keywords but uses mathematical formulae to detect patterns in any type of information, including pictures and sounds." Actually, I don’t believe this is correct. When it comes to pictures (specifically, video) and sounds, my understanding is that Autonomy is still examining textual content that describes that material (transcripts). It very much relies on texts. But rather than just doing straight keyword matching, it looks beyond the exact words to find meanings.
Autonomy used to strongly pitch that its Bayesian pattern matching analysis could figure out a document was on certain subjects, as you still see here, allowing it to find other documents with the same subject "fingerprint." But ultimately, this was still a word-based search technology.
This was back in the early days of search engines, and the pitch was something Autonomy especially used to distinguish itself and suggest it would outlast the big contemporary search engines around at the time. Yes, Lycos, Infoseek, Excite all went away. But so did Autonomy as a consumer search player, which speaks volumes that the pattern matching it hawked wasn’t that useful for consumer search. Instead, it was Google that appeared from nowhere pushing link analysis as the more useful technology.
Autonomy, of course, thrived in the enterprise space (where links are less important, and textual analysis more, since you don’t have people purposely trying to alter search rankings). Autonomy still seems to be keeping the IDOL technology for its core business, enterprise search. The real big question is what happens with the Virage video search technology?
Video Search Challenge Isn’t Speech Recognition, It’s Content Owner Management from me in February covers more about how Autonomy purchased Virage, which seems core to its enterprise video search offerings. Blinkx doesn’t seem to be getting Virage or the technology there.
That leaves me wondering if after spinning off Blinkx, could Autonomy down the line decide to go back into the consumer video search space with the Virage technology it retains?