I was at the party in New York City a couple of years ago when Jeeves was led off by Stormtroopers and encased in carbonite. If I'd known it was really the death knell of Ask.com, I may not have been as distracted by the free drinks and the pretty girls in red wigs.
We know Google is the 400-pound gorilla in the space, but with Microsoft looking to acquire Yahoo, the demise of Ask.com is going to have some far-reaching implications on our industry.
Does the loss of Ask represent an acknowledgement that Google owns our space? Can a combined Yahoo/Microsoft even minimally offer true competition to "The Borg," even if it happens?
The impact may be far-reaching, but it seems that only the people who work full-time in this industry are even aware of what's happening. The monopolization of our industry is fast becoming a reality, and yet the users of search -- our beloved potential customers -- are oblivious. Why should they care, given most of them already use Google and like the product?
Yahoo is at least still fighting. They're rolling out products and developing portals regardless of where their ownership future may take them. Their resistance of the Microsoft takeover with such moves as delaying their nominations for the election of board members, their talks with Time Warner and the possible use of Google for their search results (God forbid) show they still know the income potential of search.
Interestingly, Google has become the Microsoft of our industry. Google is like the Windows operating system -- people like to bitch about it, but nonetheless still use it. I remember the early days of Windows -- the pre-Web days when bulletin boards would decry the pervasiveness of Windows and how Microsoft would roll it out, bugs and all, and have their users find the problems for them.
Linux, Sun Microsystems and others tried to challenge the operating system, but with little impact. The average person just saw it as the system on the machines they used at work. It was easy to use and when it came time to buy a system for the house, what else would they use but the system they had grown accustomed to at work?
Because of this, the other systems soon dropped away. The flood of PCs using Windows even pushed Apple to the brink of folding.
Now it seems Ask has decided to walk into the dark good night. Changing to a Q&A site for women's health and entertainment -- apparently their core demographic -- is the way Barry Diller sees the future. How soon before we see a live feed from QVC on the Ask homepage?
If Google's competitors are calling it quits, how long before the people in our industry start seeing more loss of entrepreneurial spirit?
Though I like Google, I've also cried foul on some of the moves they've made that seemed to be squashing the efforts of whole industries -- analytics being a big one.
Diller should have let Jeeves out of his carbonite -- by this stage I imagine he'd have been pretty pissed off and may have been mad enough to help fight back against Google.
I've been waiting a long time for Bill Gross to emerge with his next "great thing" that could counter the direction our industry is heading. Guess the settlement he got from Google for their use of Overture's paid search model to create the initial AdWords was big enough to keep him silent!
At this stage we're left to wait for the next team of innovative search engineers to be launched out of Stanford.
The Spin Zone
Just after I wrote this article, Ask.com spoke with Kevin Newcomb and gave a different spin on where they were going. But did they? Nicholas Graham's statement: "The idea that we're going to become a women's site is just plain wrong. We know that a sizable group of our core user base is women, and we know they come to us for a certain kind of search: to get answers, often in areas of reference, health and entertainment."
Seems to suggest the woman concentration idea still has merit. How they do it may be with a search spin, but it still seems to be a niched search. The reference to the Q&A approach does give me hope. Maybe Jeeves will live again!
Chris Boggs Fires Back
Frank, did you end up buying that Jeeves for your personal collection of cryogenically frozen movie stars? I want to concentrate more on the Watson opinion than the Ask commentary, because it bears additional scrutiny.
I'm not sure if I agree with the Borg analogy. I've often used it to describe large companies including Google, but in this case Google would need to buy Ask from IAC in order to truly "assimilate them."
I like the Microsoft analogy, and in fact also once used a similar comparison for a print magazine. There does seem to be an element of Microsoft to Google, in that they both share the business model of pushing things out with bugs and fixing them later.
My boss, Paul Elliott, actually uses the analogy that IBM may have succeeded more greatly in the software sector had they considered a release-and-patch process for their non-hardware tools. Since they waited "until it was perfect," they essentially lost the war to Microsoft in the early stages, when it comes to software.
Lastly, I agree with Frank that maybe it would be shrewd marketing move to unfreeze Jeeves. In fact, it could be a really cool viral video based on the "Star Wars" scene.