For future Web searches, you might need Watson

October 11, 2005

BY MICHAEL KRAUSS

Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are engaged in a fierce battle to control the lucrative Internet search engine market.

Watson, a Chicago Innovation Awards honoree, may hold the key to victory in this contested arena. Someday Watson could be as synonymous with the next generation of search as Google is today.

If it succeeds, Watson, which is being rolled out by Chicago-based Intellext (www.Intellext.com) and distributed through Microsoft's MSN, could become an example of an emerging style of the Chicago School of Entrepreneurship.

The real story of Watson rests on the shoulders of three individuals: Intellext chief technology officer and co-founder Jay Budzik, 27; Northwestern University professor and Intellext co-founder Kris Hammond, 48; and Intellext CEO Al Wasserberger, 38.

These three Chicago entrepreneurs believe today's search engines are clunky relics.

"Search is great technology, but it was never meant to be used the way it is today," Hammond said. "We are seeing the emergence of a new kind of technology that is user-centric, task-centric and frees people from the need to do search."

Watson is different from current search engines. It is more like an online assistant. Hence the name Watson, as in the famous first words spoken over the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell, "Watson, come here. I need you."

Watson runs in the background on your computer, fitting in a window on your screen. It tracks your work, automatically searching the Internet, your hard drive and your company's archives for relevant material.

"When someone walks into your office at noon and says 'lunch,' you know what they mean," Budzik said. "Computers don't have an understanding of context. When you type 'lunch' into a search engine, it doesn't know where you live."

Watson aims to add intelligence and context to computer search. Thus the three men called their new company Intellext.

Watson began behind the scenes at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Hammond was a young computer science professor at the University of Chicago where Budzik was an undergraduate. They were hired to provide a computer system to answer delegates' questions about Chicago.

Hammond and Budzik intended to answer questions themselves and build a knowledge base to automate additional responses.

"Questions started coming in, and no one could understand them," Budzik said. "They were really terse like: 'Where do I take my kids?' " Without knowing more about the context -- including the children's interests and age -- the questions couldn't be answered. Budzik saw an opportunity to improve computer search.

Budzik graduated with honors from U. of C. in 1998 and followed his mentor Hammond to Northwestern. Once in Evanston, Hammond created the DevLab, a computer research and development laboratory dedicated to exploring and commercializing new technology.

During a demonstration of Watson that Hammond staged for Northwestern's trustees, Chris Galvin, then CEO of Motorola, was impressed. He wanted Watson for his own desktop, and Motorola became the first customer for the Northwestern duo.

Last December, veteran tech entrepreneur Wasserberger took the helm of the company to help bring Watson to market. He moved the company downtown from Evanston with his core mission to gain customers.

"I wanted to get Watson into the hands of users who could reap the benefits of the new technology" he said. "We got enterprise customers like AT&T and individuals to start paying for it. Quickly major online players like Google and Microsoft took notice."

Michael Krauss is a Chicago area tech writer and consultant. His tech column appears Mondays in the Sun-Times.

 

 ©2005 Marion Consulting Partners