Fast and Easy New Browserless Apps Allow One-Click Searching

Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 31, 2000

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/technology/archive/2000/08/31/oneclick.dtl

What if I told you I could save you not just a few seconds but a few minutes every time you do an Internet search?

Now you can, with a new breed of software the geeks call “browserless applications.”

“One-click searching” might be a more descriptive label.

The one-click search trend is being led, at least for the moment, by a handful of start-up companies with names you may not be familiar with, such as Flyswat, Nano and Gurunet (full disclosure: My sister works for Gurunet).

In the best tradition of the Internet, all three companies are offering early versions of their products free to end-users.

Here’s the basic idea: Once the software is installed, which takes about five minutes, Internet searches can be conducted simply by pressing alt and clicking your mouse once over a word or phrase.

What’s more, you don’t have to open a new browser window or leave whatever document or email you were working on. The more versatile versions of the software let you conduct instant searches from within virtually any word processing document, email or Web page.

All three firms are aiming at the same target: helping users find what they’re looking for online faster and more reliably than anyone else.

Up until now, with a few exceptions, most everything done on the Internet has been browser based. You point, you click, and you move along, taking the browser, and all the heavy advertising and marketing cross-promotion baggage it carries, with you.

Not anymore. The average web surfer has a lot to gain from this new technology. As browserless search applications catch on, though, web-based businesses will be forced to adapt to yet another dramatically different online environment.

We’ve already seen a handful of wildly successful browserless applications. So we know the basic concept works.

ICQ, for example, the popular online instant messaging service purchased by AOL, works regardless of whether you have a browser running or not.

Some of the same people who gave birth to ICQ, including Mirabilis company founder Yossi Vardi, incidentally, are on the Israeli team that created Gurunet, which recently opened its U.S. headquarters in San Mateo.

Pressing alt and single clicking over a word or phrase also activates the other two new browserless search tools.

But the similarities mostly end there.

Nano’s Web page, for example, explains that its product, which is still in beta, works best when searching within a page that contains just a single article, topic, or product description.

Competing products, including both Flyswat and Gurunet, are more context sensitive. They’ve been designed to let you search for information about a single word on a page regardless of other topics that may be found on that page.

Flyswat has some other features which some may find useful.

The software automatically puts yellow highlighting lines under each of the many “keywords” it recognizes on every web page visited. The idea is that users then immediately know which words can be clicked on to get more information.

But I found the ubiquitous yellow lines annoying. Ditto with Flyswat’s unauthorized and hard to remove takeover of the toolbar in my Internet explorer, with which it has been designed to work.

Gurunet, in contrast, lets users click on any word virtually anywhere in their computer to call up more information, which eliminates the need for all that screen-cluttering highlighting.

But the biggest difference is what happens after the mouse clicking.

While not flawless, Gurunet’s little pop up window does a better job of figuring out the context of individual alt-click inquiries by analyzing the sentence where the word or phase appears.

Alt-clicking on an uncommon word or phase, for example, opens a pop-up window with a definition, while the menu choices offered include categories such as legal information on the topic, related technology, foreign language translations, Internet keywords, books on the subject and, if you want, access to raw search results compiled by fifteen different search engines.

In most cases, though, the raw results are not needed because Gurunet’s categories help users drill down to find what they need more quickly, in the process eliminating the “221,452 results” problem common to most first generation search engines.

If you alt-click on “Hewlett Packard” for example, Gurunet’s pop up window brings you information on the Palo Alto-based company, not on Farleigh Hewlett, who has a machine shop in Fresno, or collectors of antique Packard automobiles. Alt-click on an abbreviation or an acronym and Gurunet knows you want it to serve up the meaning.

Gurunet’s competitors also seem to be playing the e-commerce angle a bit too heavy for my taste, with too many of their searches leading to sales pitches from one vendor or another.

Gurunet’s e-commerce push, while still present, is noticeably less obnoxious, with the greater emphasis placed on helping users find whatever information they need.

There are some competing patent claims on the technology. But with any luck the feds will eventually rule that no single company has a right to a stranglehold on alt-click searches, which in reality epitomize the natural evolution of hypertext, one of the world wide web’s original core technologies.

The absence of patent protection, though, could leave an opening for the big online search portals, such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos, to create their own copycat one-click search products. But my guess is that probably won’t happen.

That’s because the most successful old-line search engines have moved on to the supposedly greener “portal” pastures.

It reminds me of the way the once powerful railroad companies of the 1800’s were eclipsed by the internal combustion industry, which led to trucking during the first half of this century.

The railroad barons mistakenly thought they were in the railroad business, not realizing they were really in the transportation industry. Back then, they had the resources and the customer relationships to dominate the new path of commerce but let the opportunity slip away to a bunch of newcomers with names such as Ford and General Motors.

We might well see the same thing happen to many of today’s big online portals, which, like the railroads before them, are beginning to become irrelevant to their original customers.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a portal. What I need are fast and accurate answers to whatever questions I have. If I can get those answers without going through a portal, and without enduring all the online hawking that makes portals resemble a Middle-Eastern bazaar, so much the better.

Unfortunately for them, though, the big portals are no longer designed primarily to help users find what they’re looking for as quickly as possible. Instead, the “portalization” of search sites has placed a greater emphasis on selling stuff and generating ad revenue.

In essence, the portals have placed their own needs above those of their users. Dangerous territory, there.

The big portals will need to rethink and very possibly redo many if not most of the commercial arrangements they now have if they want to avoid irrelevancy in the newly evolving browserless world. In essence, they’ll have to be willing to cannibalize themselves by embracing a new approach that eliminates at least some of their current browser-dependent revenue streams.

But successful companies rarely cannibalize themselves.

It took the railroads about fifty years to lose their hammerlock over commercial transportation. Given the pace of Internet time, we might see the same thing happen to the big portals in something more like fifty months.

In the meantime, one-clicking searching promises to accelerate the Net’s evolution as an even more useful tool. Online firms will have to develop more targeted approaches, and more open architectures, in order to make sure that what they have to offer doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

In the old days, meaning today, online firms could wait for us to come to them.

In the future, the tables will be turned. One-click searching will let users ask for what they want and then sit back while the heavy lifting of finding and delivering the requested information is done for them.

One-click searching has another benefit, as well. If every knowledge worker here in the U.S. saves, say, just ten minutes a day — a very conservative estimate — the overall cumulative contribution to productivity, a key economic measure, will be substantial. And increases in productivity, which we’ve seen a lot of in recent years, are what most drives economic growth without causing inflation.

More evidence that, as I’ve often said, the Internet revolution is just getting started.

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