Google, Wikia Search, Live Search...and Ergo?

Despite the ubiquity of Google as the current search tool of choice, recent headlines have made it clear that the battle over the search market is far from over.

Need proof? Just look at Microsoft’s newly-announced acquisition of Fast Search & Transfer, a Norwegian software developer that specializes in business-oriented search products. Microsoft will reportedly lay down a cool $1.2 Billion to acquire the firm, and will use the acquired technology to improve their business search offerings.

Microsoft business division President Jeff Raikes said that the acquisition would help Microsoft save customers the trouble of having to juggle multiple search solutions to meet their needs. Our own Paul Thurrott questions the value of the acquisition, but it’s clear that Microsoft is willing to open up the coffers wide to hedge their bets against Google.

Another search-related story of note was the launch of Wikia Search, the open-source search effort (championed by Wikipedia creator Jimmy Wales) that intends to provide an open source search alternative to Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

It’s admittedly a laudable effort, but the launch of Wikia Search was met with scathing reviews from bloggers, critics and open-sourcers who complained about sluggish searches, poor search results and a number of other shortcomings. It’s still too early to proclaim Wikia Search a flop, but it does prove that keeping up with Google isn’t an easy job. Just ask Microsoft and Yahoo, who have been collectively playing Elmer Fudd to Google’s Bugs Bunny for years.

In the midst of this battle for search, some new players are quietly creeping into the market, experimenting with new ways to find and display information. Such is the case with Invu, a tiny UK-based developer that has launched Ergo, a new product that marches to the beat of a different drummer when it comes to finding, organizing and sharing information. It’s still in beta, but Ergo could be something to keep an eye out for for.

After you spend about 15 minutes downloading and installing the software, you’re presented with the main Ergo desktop: a spare, open environment with a handful of icons and search bar at the bottom of the screen. Ergo isn’t a search engine, relying instead on existing search engines and information sources to find what you’re looking for. You can choose to rely on just one source for your search efforts (like Google or Wikipedia, for example), or you can decide to search using all of them simultaneously.

Once your search is completed, the real beauty of Ergo becomes apparent. Instead of simply grouping your search results in a simple list, Ergo presents your search results in an animated 3D view that you can zoom and rotate around. Clicking on a node will zero in on a topic for more information, while rotating the view will display additional related topics.

You can display your search results in several aesthetically impressive ways, ranging from a 3D cloud (not unlike the holographic maps depicted regularly in Star Trek and Star Wars) to 3D cubes, tag clouds and 3D grids. There's lots of eye candy here, from the iPod Touch-esque shuffling of Web pages to the zooming and shrinking of icons and program elements.

Ergo also allows you to share the information you’ve found and organized with others. A “pen mode” feature lets you scribble on Web pages and online documents, then send those documents to other Ergo users for them to annotate and edit.

There are other experimental search efforts out there: Microsoft’s Tafiti is one, and it relies on a growing tree metaphor to group and organize search results. It also lets you share your search results with others, but it lacks the multiple search result display options, and doesn’t have a feature comparable to Ergo’s pen mode functionality. It also doesn’t look or operate as cleanly as Ergo, which seems to have taken a page from Apple’s design playbook.

I've spent a few hours with ergo, and I'm impressed by the scope of Invu’s effort, and their willingness to fully embrace a new approach to organizing information. On the downside, program operation seems sluggish on all but the fastest machines, and the non-standard interface takes some getting used. I'm also not entirely convinced that the product (at least in its current state) will grow into something I would use on a regular basis, but it does hold some potential.

I'll reserve final judgment until the product has a few more months of development under its belt, but you have to give Invu (and by extension, Ergo) credit for trying something new. The boys at Invu may also want to prepare for company, as I’d imagine deep-pocketed visitors from Redmond or Mountain View may soon be paying them a visit.


TAGS: Windows 8
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