Posted by: Paraic | July 7, 2008

The Powerset Acquisition

I have a particular interest in the use of Language Technologies in the Search arena.  The Microsoft acquisition of Powerset for about $100M is therefore noteworthy.  Powerset is invariably described as a ‘Semantic Search’ engine (within Linguistics, Semantics relates to the study of meaning), though Powerset states the goal as, “to change the way people interact with technology by enabling computers to understand our language“.

While it’s great to see Language Technology get some limelight (particularly in the search space where it is often dismissed), I must say I’ve been underwhelmed each time I’ve interacted with Powerset’s various demos and systems along the way.  It’s a difficult problem; to generally demonstrate the improvements from using this technology in search.  First, Powerset has been restricted to searching Wikipedia rather than  a large Web index.  Secondly some (many) queries just won’t benefit very much from what Powerset is doing compared to the results of other engines (while some queries will benefit a lot and Powerset will return impressive results).  I think Microsoft will be able to help with both of these.  The scaling of the Powerset indexing to web content has been addressed in much of the coverage.  I suspect that another part of it though will be determining which search queries to Microsoft will benefit most from using Powerset’s approach.  It will be interesting to see where Powerset shows up at Microsoft search.

I’m glad to see that Powerset took this course.  When people asked me what I thought of Powerset I found myself comparing them to Whizbang! (from some years back, where Barney Pell was also involved).  They also had great technology and an exceptional team of people but I never thought they had the product /market strategy to make it (and timing didn’t help them either).  I didn’t think Powerset could make it in search on their own either, so I’m glad to see them team up with Microsoft.

Finally, I hadn’t known this before moving back, but some of the folks at the National Centre for Language Technology (NCLT) here at DCU have particular expertise in this area.  I’m not going to go in to Parsing and LFG here, but some information on the technology Powerset licensed from Xerox Parc can be found at Parc Research.  Interestingly, Enterprise Ireland has recently funded researchers at the NCLT to further develop similar (they claim it’s better!) parsing technology for potential application in search…



  1. […] Exodus – Wow! While I was reading about the Powerset acquisition over at Techcrunch, I also came across this list of employees who have left Yahoo!  While […]

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