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Start-up touts ‘search unplugged’

Apr 10, 20065 mins
Enterprise Applications

Search the Web from your laptop or handheld – without an Internet connection of any kind?

This seeming impossibility is what a Bellevue, Wash., start-up called Webaroo has set out to realize – the company calls it “search unplugged” – and even company President Brad Husick concedes that he found the idea crazy at first.

It wasn’t that long ago that a laptop with an 80GB hard drive seemed crazy too. But ever-more-monstrous drives are common today, and they serve as the foundation on which Webaroo is basing its free, ad-supported search service. The company and service emerge from stealth today, armed with a flashy bundling agreement from laptop maker Acer.

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“It’s not inconceivable that a couple of years from now laptops are going to have 400 or 500GB drives in them,” says Husick, who co-founded Webaroo in 2004 with CEO Rakesh Mathur and CTO Beerud Sheth. “What if you could take that space, and it would be enough to carry the Internet with you? If you think about searching the Web without being tied to a connection of some kind – and then periodically connecting to get refreshed – that was the kernel of our idea. How do you put the Web on a hard drive? . . . That’s why it was so crazy.”

The first thing to acknowledge is that the phrase “put the Web on a hard drive” is not to be taken literally. As Husick explains: “Let’s say the HTML Web is 10 billion pages – it’s actually a little less than that – but at 10K per page that’s 1 million gigabytes, also known as a petabyte. It’s going to be a long time before notebooks have million gigabyte hard drives. So how do you get a million gigabytes down to what you need?”

Webaroo does it, he says, through “a server farm that is of Web scale” and a set of proprietary search algorithms that whittle the million gigabytes down to manageable chunks that will fit on a hard drive: up to 256MB for a growing menu of Web packs on specific topics – favorite Web sites, city guides, news summaries, Wikipedia and the like – that make up the service’s initial offerings; and something in the neighborhood of 40GB for the full-Web version set for release later this year.

“We’ve developed these algorithms that give you a set of meaningful, relevant results for anything on which you search,” Husick says. “In effect, we give you the first couple pages of results.”

That’s all you really need, the company says, because studies show that most people rarely look beyond the first 10 to 20 results returned by a typical search. Webaroo returns not just a list of pages but the pages themselves – with all graphics intact – as well as key live links from those pages and the pages to which they lead. They’re talking roughly 10,000 pages per Web pack, or plenty to provide a meaningful search experience for whatever is the subject matter at hand, Husick says.

Users must download and install 5MB of Webaroo software to get started and then sync up with the Webaroo service site to refresh the content in their topic-specific packs or later this year, the full-Web version. Husick says these updates take only minutes, but I’m already seeing corporate network managers wincing at the notion of this application sweeping the workplace.

All in all, though, there’s no denying the wow factor here.

“It’s kind of surprising that nobody else has done something like this,” says Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Analyst Group. “It’s one of those things that a lot of folks will download.”

Enderle believes the service could be a big hit among those whose jobs regularly take them away from their ‘Net connections – frequent fliers, for example. “It’s going to be a while before hot spots are in all the places we need to have them,” he says.

Which isn’t to say that ever-more-ubiquitous ‘Net connections won’t pose a challenge to the Webaroo business model.

“Long term, their opportunity may have more to do with [search] performance” than the offline capability itself, Enderle says.

Husick tells me that notion was reinforced by a rousing reception the service received from Japanese mobile operators, who he says were salivating over Webaroo as a means to siphon search traffic away from their wireless broadband networks.

Webaroo also is touting the potential cost savings and convenience of its service.

“Every hotel I go to wants to charge me $10 to $15 a night for Internet. Every airport wants to charge me another $10 to get connected,” Husick says. “If I’ve got five minutes before I have to board my flight, do I want to spend that five minutes connecting, or do I want to spend five minutes getting my search answer?”

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