"Kenjin respectfully invites you to attend a wake in commemoration of the end of searching" said the invitation. Not that this glitzy press launch, held last Wednesday night in a basement bar just off Piccadilly, felt much like a post-funeral bash.
The MC was Bert Kwouk, film actor and sidekick to surreal comedian Harry Hill, who joined Mike Lynch, the UK's first internet billionaire, to perform a Widow Twankey pantomime routine in which Microsoft buys Tibet - allowing it to launch MSNlighten.
This was the launch of Kenjin, a free downloadable tool which uses a pattern recognition algorithm to search for relevant documents, news and even people. In their cod demo, Kwouk and Lynch used Kenjin to scan an email with news of the Tibet buy-out, and find people relevant to the news. Kenjin suggested the Dalai Lama, so they sent him an email reading: "It's a long time since we had a good yak."
Three wise men
The technology behind Kenjin (which means 'wise man' in Japanese) and Lynch's company, Autonomy, is as clever as the launch's jokes were awful. Lynch, who has a doctorate from Cambridge University for work on neural networks, employs Bayes's theorem - a piece of probability mathematics created by the Reverend Thomas Bayes, an 18th-century cleric.
Bayes's friend Richard Price - who is credited with creating the first risk tables for life assurance firms - said it proved the argument for the existence of God.
Maybe not, but it does enable good search software. Kenjin is fast, if not always totally accurate. It takes up 1.2Mb, works automatically in a small bar at the foot of your screen, and a demo on a standard phone line to an ISP had suggestions coming up within seconds of a Word document being loaded. The software reads documents, finding patterns and boiling them down to algorithms, and then uses these to calculate the probability that two documents are related. This means that format is irrelevant, and that the software can work in any language. Most search engines rely on keywords, and only scan web pages.
Your document can be compared to one of four groups of files: news stories from 120 sources; files on your own hard drive; encyclopaedia entries and books; and most intriguingly, people. If you choose, it can treat you as a file for comparison. Someone choosing the people option will find the email addresses (nothing more, for privacy reasons) of individuals whose collected works match the document they have open.
A test by vnunet.com, typing the first line of a fictional story about Oracle cutting prices, led Kenjin to suggest a news story about the pay of the company's chief operating officer, Ray Lane - not a bad match. Less convincing was a news article about the problems of British Nuclear Fuels, which led to Salman Rushdie's novel about rock music, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. To be fair, Kenjin only suggested a 38 per cent match.
Seeing is believing
In an interview with vnunet.com, Mike Lynch said Kenjin will help Autonomy win more big corporate accounts, such as those it holds with BAe Systems, Unilever and the BBC. But it is more than a loss-leader, he adds: "When people see what is possible, they are amazed." For example, Tesco is producing a customised version for users of its internet service provider. Maybe if you start typing an email about a holiday in the Lake District, a sponsoring retailer can try to sell you fell boots, Lynch said.
Lynch had harsh words for the advertising spend of dot com companies. "They are spending all that money on the sides of buses," he said. "With this technology, it's irrelevant."
Autonomy is floated on European technology exchange Easdaq, with a capitalisation that would put it in the FTSE-100 index if it were listed here. However, Lynch was put off London by its lack of expertise: "They really didn't get it," he said. Lynch will soon be listing Autonomy on Nasdaq, although he doesn't rule out a London flotation: the firm's head offices are in Cambridge, as well as San Francisco.
But have UK investors got any smarter since Lynch took his flotation elsewhere? He has no problem with companies that rely on good marketing, rather than good technology. "It's the companies that have neither: three guys, just out of business school, who have never run a whelk stall." He thinks the current crop of web based retailers, rather than infrastructure providers, are the most risky: "Frankly, there are some houses of straw out there," he said.
Indeed, the Kenjin launch party could have been a wake for the technology stock bubble. The next day, Thursday, the London Techmark index of 200 technology stocks dropped by 6.6 per cent.
On the brighter side, the current slump in technology stocks could mean that old fashioned values - such as, does this company make lots of money or if not, has it got world-beating technology - will one day come back into style. The UK has companies in the latter category, such as chip designer ARM, laptop maker Psion, and software firms like Autonomy. These have a chance of justifying their high valuations, unlike a web retailer which floated rather at the last minute before the market crashed.
But, as Bert Kwouk's partner would say: What are the chances of that happening, eh?
The software can be downloaded free at www.kenjin.com.
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