Friday, January 08, 2010

microsoft search for search

Before it goes into oblivion I would like to report the story of how I got close to become the provider for search technology to Microsoft in 2002.

In 2000 I had developed, with some help from Antonio Cisternino, a quite efficient search engine library for Ideare, a startup with a couple of former students (Antonio Gullì and Domenico Dato). Ideare had built Arianna, the first and most popular search engine for the Italian Web, under contract from Antonio Converti of Olivetti Telemedia.
The search engine was called IXE and was written in C++; it used techniques quite advanced for the time, including template metaprogramming and achieved an outstanding efficiency.
Customers like Fireball, the largest German search engine, performed benchmarks that showed IXE was 26 (sic!) times faster than Altavista, the leading search engine at the time.

Bruno Quarta, responsible of University Relations for Microsoft in our area, heard of our achievments, and suggested that we showed our engine to Microsoft people in Redmond who were about to redesign the search for site, which they considered quite unsatisfactory.
He put us in contact with them and they requested to test our software to compare it with the search engine they were developing for SharePoint, their forthcoming product for Web portals.
I agreed and they sent me the whole dump of the site, for which I built an index.
I also built a Web Service in C# to demonstrate the ability to integrate in .Net, which was also Microsoft upcoming technology.
The results were quite good, so I was contacted by David Feussner, who had been recently appointed Director of Search at Microsoft, to go to Redmond to present our technology.
A trip was arranged for Antonio Cisternino and me for the end of April 2002, with meetings scheduled for several days with various people.
I thought that we would not survive the first day and we would be sent back to Pisa right away.
The first day we had a meeting with a number of Program Managers.
When we entered the room, they were all busy on their laptops, and the look on their face was like: let's finish this quickly so that we can get on with more important work.

So I started describing the architecture of IXE, explaining that it had been designed to be "as simple as possible, but no simpler" so that it could be efficient but easy to maintain, carefully choosing algorithms and data structures.
As I was progressing, I started getting questions: "Do you have proximity search?", "how do you handle multiple facets?" and so on.
Luckily I always had a good answer and the attention to my talk grew.
In the end everybody was enthusiastic and wanted to know more.
So in the afternoon I continued explaining in more detail the API of the engine.
In the end we survided the first day and I was asked to give a talk to a general audience about my vision on search.
We kept having meetings with various people until we were finally introduced to Jim Sterling, the VP of
He had been briefed about our software and we sat at a table in his office with his CTO on his side and with David Feussner.
He told us that he had heard good rewiews about our software. I asked if he wanted to try it himself and handed him my 386 HP laptop.
He looked surprised and typed his favorite questions: "biztalk" and instantly he got results that pleased him.
So we started talking about the features of our software. Whenever I was mentioning something interesting, he asked to the CTO: "Do we have this?". The typical answer was "we will have it in 12 months", "it is planned in the next release", and so on.
In then end Sterling complimented with us and told to Feussner that he could proceed with a deal.
In fact a few days later when we were back in Pisa, Feussner called and said he was coming to Italy to negotiate a deal.
A meeting was arranged with Renato Soru, the founder of Tiscali, who had in the meantime acquired Ideare.
The meeting occurred at the Milan headquarters of Tiscali and Soru went directly to the core issue: he asked 10 million dollars for transferring to Microsoft the ownership of the IPR for IXE.
Feussner was a little puzzled and said that the amount was beyond his budget limits and he had to ask permission to his boss.
Soru explained that he thought the price was fair since Microsoft had paid 30 millions for RealNetworks software and according to him, our search software was at least, if no more strategic to Microsoft than RealPlayer.
We knew from insider sources that Feussner was authorized to spend around 1 million, so a deal might have been reachable. In fact we invited Feussner to Pisa and we spoke about future plans together, including opening a Microsoft search center in Pisa.
Feussner returned to the USA and promised to handle the follow up, which included performing a due diligence and market analysis comparing alternatives to IXE.
We heard later that IXE passed these comparisons quite well and in fact we were requested to send to Microsoft the souce code for IXE so that they could analyze it and get familiar with its use.
Ideare sent a non disclosure agreement which was duly signed and the software was sent to Microsoft for testing.
The goal for Microsoft was to go online with a new search service in Autumn. Since we were getting close to Summer, I was expecting a decision by the end of June.
I was getting occasional questions by mail, but no progress on the deal.
Bruno Quarta was reassuring me that everything was all right, just decisions in Microsoft took long time.
After the summer I wrote to Feussner saying that I was interested in his opinion, no matter what it was, and even a negative opinion by Microsoft would have been helpful, in order to improve our software.
My messages were never answered.

Suddenly, I read in the news that David Feussner had been arrested by the FBI for fraud.

For us that was quite bad news; in fact, Feussner's whole team was dismantled and I heard that a new team would have to be formed to take over search.
That obviously impied that the new chief would start from scratch an probably would discard anything that Feussner had done so far.

In fact we never heard back from Microsoft, except when we asked them to remove all their copies of IXE and to terminate the non disclosure agreement.

A few days later, an even sadder news reached us:

David Feussner had committed suicide while in custody.

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