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FAST Forward to the User Revolution
by
Posted On March 3, 2008
The recent business and technology conference, FASTforward ’08, hosted by Fast Search & Transfer (FAST; www.fastsearch.com), drew a diverse group of customers and technology partners—some 1,300 folks from 30 countries—to Orlando, Fla. The annual event has grown exponentially in recent years, possibly due to its compelling keynote speakers and exploration of industry issues, besides the obvious opportunity for customer-vendor interactions and networking. This year probed the theme of the impact of "The User Revolution," a set of trends in internet usage and behavior that are impacting businesses of all kinds—and presenting opportunities for those companies which can embrace the changes. Basically, power has shifted to users, and businesses that can respond with customer-centric solutions will find success in the market. While the emphasis was on how FAST can provide the answer for businesses, there was so much substance in the keynotes, as well as some revealing discussion of FAST’s future direction under Microsoft ownership, that it warrants reporting here.

Safa Rashtchy, financial analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co., highlighted six key trends on the web that are accelerating the user revolution.
1. The emergence of a new activity, communitainment (community + communication + entertainment)
2. The increasing popularity of Usites (sites with user-generated content)
3. Mainstreaming of the internet (it’s part of our daily routine)
4. Declining use of traditional media (no surprise here)
5. Fragmentation of content consumption (proliferation of options and multitasking)
6. The evolution of user-generated brands (work with users to create brand loyalty)

The user revolution is what drives Enterprise 2.0 initiatives and phenomena like "Wikinomics" (mass collaboration) and "pull platforms," a term discussed by keynoter John Hagel, consultant and industry commentator. Push programs assume demand can be forecast and treat people as passive consumers. The new pull platforms are customized and flexible and treat people as networked creators. (If you’d like some background on this, see www.johnhagel.com/paper_pushpull.pdf.)

Don Tapscott, an authority on business strategy and the author of Paradigm Shift: The New Promise of Information Technology, The Naked Corporation: How the Age of Transparency Will Revolutionize Business, and most recently, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, says the key is in harnessing the power of collaboration. Big changes have converged to create the "perfect storm" of Enterprise 2.0 opportunity for companies. He urges people to consider new business models, including the wiki workplace and open platforms, which tap into the collaborative spirit.

Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School researches how Web 2.0 technologies can be used inside the enterprise. He didn’t mince words about the competitive advantage possibilities: "My deepest professional opinion is that technology is the opposite of a competitive leveler. It tends to accentuate the differences. That is, enterprise 2.0 will increase the differences among companies."

Clare Hart, executive vice president, Dow Jones & Co., stressed the changing expectations for search. In this new user-centric environment, search needs to provide anticipatory discovery (provide users with information they didn’t know they wanted), and it needs to be proactive, collaborative, and contextually relevant. All of this can contribute to contextual thinking, a 360 degree view of a business, drive confidence, and inform decision making.

The FAST Vision and Product Roadmap

The core technology vision espoused by FAST is its new focus on "interaction management," a technology revealed at the event but to be formally announced at a later date. While other software vendors (such as CRM or BI) may use the term interaction management, FAST says it is the technology layer on top of the core search engine which provides the personalization of content. FAST’s technology is based on the personalization engine developed by AgentArts, a company FAST acquired last year.

Basically, it’s about "increasingly intelligent algorithmic services" used to leverage a wealth of contextual data to offer personalized and suggestive experiences to users. The new interaction management technology will allow a company to customize work panes for its users with content in the context of a particular work focus. Search is the portal in this new environment. The focus is on the intentions of the consumer of the content—it’s centered on the user.

FAST showed a demo of its new but not yet available Content Integration Studio (CIS). It is currently in testing with its first customer and is expected to launch later in 2008. In technical terms, the "CIS is a brand new IDE for creation of high-performance network content flows that processes structured and unstructured data." In layman’s terms, it’s an easy graphical way of mapping content input (data sources) and output (how it is consumed). It’s an interactive development environment, so you can test and debug on-the-fly. Very cool.

FAST is also working on an upgrade to its core search engine. There are already some customers live with the new platform, including Reuters and Thomson, but FAST plans additional testing before its general release. FAST will continue to focus on its target markets, monetization (which accounts for 70% of its business), and on very large enterprise customers (the remaining 30%).

Microsoft’s Statement of Plans

On Jan. 8, Microsoft announced a $1.2 billion offer to acquire FAST (see the NewsBreak at http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/nbReader.asp?ArticleId=40582). The acquisition is currently in process; shareholders have approved the deal, and it should be finalized in early Q2 2008 (April or May). FAST will operate as a subsidiary of Microsoft, reporting to the SharePoint team. Jared Spataro, who is responsible for enterprise search at Microsoft, was a featured speaker at FASTforward ’08. While he was unable to provide many details, he did review the benefits and some of Microsoft’s intent.

Microsoft has been developing its enterprise search strategy over the last 18 months or so. "In 2006, we got enterprise search religion," says Spataro. "FAST brings us the people and technology to make it happen … They kind of had us at ‘hello.’" He says the companies have shared a vision for enterprise search but have taken complementary approaches—combining them brings many advantages.

To Microsoft, FAST brings leadership and vision, people ("the best in the industry"), and best-in-class technology. FAST has depth and high-touch customer relationships. From Microsoft, FAST gains the ability to scale Microsoft’s breadth—SharePoint’s momentum, complementary infrastructure technologies, and its sales and marketing engine (not to mention its deep pockets). FAST gets the opportunity to realize its vision.

And what’s in the deal for customers? FAST will continue to pursue opportunities in its two markets—monetization (revenue-producing search application) and enterprise (employee applications), i.e., Microsoft will not disrupt this market strategy. FAST’s high-touch, deep relationships with its customers will continue (customer-led innovation). And on the sticky question of search running on non-Windows platforms, Spataro says FAST’s customers can expect continued cross-platform support and innovation.

While there have been reports that some FAST employees are not enthusiastic about the Microsoft acquisition, apparently most employees are positive—and certainly everyone I talked to in Orlando seemed to think it’s a win-win.

More coverage of the event and discussion of Enterprise 2.0 are found on the FASTforward blog at www.fastforwardblog.com. There are posts of many interesting video interviews with speakers and attendees.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.


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