Microsoft may be the underdog when it comes to enterprise search, but that doesn't mean it can't move markets when it wants to.
The news today was Redmond's $1.2 billion purchase offer for Fast Search & Transfer (FAST), a deal that directors and leading shareholders jumped at considering the company's rather poor performance over the past several quarters. The offer boosts the share value of the company roughly 42 percent, which makes a very attractive lifeboat indeed. In return, Microsoft gets instant access to the search efforts of major Fast customers like Best Buy, Disney, Merrill Lynch and Pfizer.
The big question is what all this means to Google. The company recently upgraded its Search Appliance to add native support for third-party document management systems from EMC, IBM and, yes, Microsoft. But Google has found out that corporate networks are even more complicated than the Web itself, with numerous formats for structured and unstructured data to contend with. If Microsoft can tweak the bugs out of Fast's technology and then leverage its substantial Office sales force, there could be a real horserace for the enterprise search laurels.
Somewhat lost in all the speculation is how the deal will affect existing Fast customers. With the company's Fast Forward conference coming up next month, it will be interesting to see which Microsoft exec will be tasked with explaining exactly how it plans to bring the ease and reliability of Web searching to the corporate network.
And still another player in this saga is Fast's chief European competitor, Autonomy. Normally, when a behemoth like Microsoft muscles its way into a sector, it's the smaller fry who suffer. But in this case, Autonomy looks to be in pretty good shape. As the last of the pure-play search vendors, the company can say it is more interested in developing universal search technologies than in trying to bend the rest of the industry to its will.
Search technology is no doubt one of the most complicated endeavors in the enterprise, and results have been fair to middling so far. But anticipation is high that before too long, finding last week's distribution figures will soon be as easy as finding last night's ball scores. And whoever makes that happen first will reap the rewards.