Powerset Embraces Ask Jeeves Model

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At Powerset, they call it ‘natural language search’. We call it a $12 million homage to the days of the butler at Ask Jeeves, when that search engine proved more useful for entertainment value than actual quality search results.

"Then, of course, this blood belongs to a second individual -- presumably the murderer, if murder has been committed. It reminds me of the circumstances attendant on the death of Van Jansen, in Utrecht, in the year '34. Do you remember the case, Gregson?"

"No, sir."

"Read it up -- you really should. There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before."
-- Sherlock Holmes illustrates how history tends to repeat, A Study In Scarlet

Ever since IAC leader Barry Diller picked up Ask Jeeves and retired the iconic butler, the team at the renamed Ask has been working hard to move away from the days when their search aptitude was taken less seriously than Dennis Miller’s stint in the Monday Night Football booth.

I might be the only person who liked Dennis Miller’s work, but I was never a fan of the old Ask Jeeves. The concept was a compelling one, in theory, but the butler just didn’t know a Pinot Grigio from a pine nut.

The concept of natural language search has returned, and I almost expect it to have a hockey mask and a terrifying predilection for sharp objects. Powerset is running in what they’re calling semi-stealth mode. In Silicon Valley speak, the semi- part must mean being picked up by only the New York Times on New Year’s Eve.

There’s no ‘there’ there yet at Powerset, aside from the who’s who in smart folks running the firm, and other smart ones who have made an investment in the company. I can’t properly mock them or eat my words based on Powerset’s results because they don’t exist yet.

The list of angels who have plunked down several million to bankroll Powerset’s ‘back to the future’ approach the search includes quite a few tech notables, like the legendary Esther Dyson. Among the Peter Thiels and Reid Hoffmans, we find a name that’s as notorious as it is notable.

Thanks to Valleywag’s Sean Parker category, it’s easy to get up to speed on the bad boy of Silicon Valley. Parker has a place in Powerset’s angel list, though a cursory read of Valleywag’s posts about him indicate that ‘angel Sean Parker’ could be an oxymoron.

Powerset may have Google-beating aspirations, Yahoo-like desires for a comfortable place behind Google, or a yearning desire to be flipped to a deep-pocketed suitor like Microsoft when Powerset unveils its whiz-bang technology.

But given the difficulties Ask Jeeves encountered in pulling off the natural language approach, not to mention the all-important question of how Powerset will monetize their work (Google AdSense perhaps?), Barney Pell and company really have some work to do, and no butler to help.


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David Utter is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

Powerset Embraces Ask Jeeves Model
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