Jimmy Wales on Open Source Web Search

This is an email that I send to a mailing list of my friends in response to an article about Jimmy Wales’s initiative to create a Wikipedia-like search engine.

While this is a fine idea, Jimmy Wales has to figure out how to make it exactly unlike Wikipedia – the wild wild west of information resources. If he does that, he has a chance. Could you imagine what Google would be like if we had every random person tweaking each constant and equation of Google’s Page Rank algorithm?

He also makes no mention of infrastructure. A competitive search engine over the entire web requires vast amount of resources; not infeasible, but certainly impossible for the likes of you and me. Servers, disk space, network, operators – you can’t get by anymore with five employees and a few dozen servers. I’ll be interested to see how he intends to pull this off. Start small, obviously, but growth is a problem in today’s exploding web.

He has more of a chance if he specifically pitches it to academic database researchers who need substance for their PhD research. There are some really smart people out there who need to prove themselves before they get snatched up by Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft.

The article makes a point that I believe is fairly true: people will not switch search engines until the current one fails them. How often do you randomly go to Yahoo! or live.com to see if those search engines are better than Google? I’d bet not often.

If Tim Berners-Lee’s “semantic web” idea comes through, in several years, this project will be much easier. People have asked me, “What will topple Google?” And the answer is a level playing field. Despite the myth, a giant won’t be toppled by a David, like Jimmy Wales proposes, but will be toppled by a changing landscape. The promise of the semantic web is easy access to information. Google will then need to compete on the other factors that Jimmy Wales mentions in that article.

At the very least, Jimmy Wales is spearheading a discussion on how we use the web – and all of information – of the future. Whether his project succeeds or fails, I hope he at least motivates a few people to look at how the web can be, different from how the web is today.

Disagreement welcome, of course, Eric

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