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Autonomy has been diligently working on a potentially breakthrough campaign that could pit the software group against the might of Yahoo and Google, the US search engine giants, and take it into partnership with the biggest movie houses in the world.

The small British challenger wants to position itself as a key technology provider for the media industry but the action is taking place a long way from Hollywood.

Its efforts are being led out of Beijing, where Autonomy has just signed a joint venture with China Netcom Broadband (CNCBB), one of China’s biggest internet companies with more than 110m subscribers.

The pair have agreed to create a service that will allow Chinese consumers to search for news and video clips from 25 local and national TV companies over the internet.

It will be the first time that Autonomy’s software is used on a truly large scale for searching media material.

Autonomy makes software that is used for searching and cataloguing data – particularly “unstructured” data such as e-mails, photos, and video footage. So far the technology has been chiefly used by companies to manage the ever-increasing load of documents stored on their computer systems.

But now, Autonomy is looking to expand beyond the corporate market. The same technology that can search through a company’s e-mail system looking for e-mails containing the words “sexual harassment”, could just as easily be used by the general public to search for a favourite movie scene or line of a song.

Autonomy has already tried this on a small scale, with a UK company called Blinkx.

Blinkx runs a search service – powered by Autonomy technology – that allows internet users to look for particular video clips from organisations such as the BBC, Fox News, CNN, and Reuters.

Blinkx gets a certain amount of kudos from industry experts for being a pioneer in this field, but has a low profile with consumers. CNCBB’s massive user-base will take its efforts into a much bigger league.

Autonomy is by no means the only company looking to enter the video search market. Google and Yahoo – internet search names already familiar with consumers – have also recently launched similar services.

Many companies are keen to participate in this area, because there is so much at stake. This is not just about a handful of contracts to supply technology – the company that provides an easy-to-use and popular video and TV search will end up having a big influence over what material consumers watch in the future.

The boundaries between television and the internet are increasingly blurred. At the moment, only a handful of people regularly watch TV on their computer screens, and the clips are likely to be of relatively short duration.

However, the Microsoft media centre – a PC designed to replace the TV as the main entertainment unit in people’s living rooms – is starting to change this. In addition, a number of companies, such as BT, and the BBC are planning to start offering services whereby customers can watch TV and movies over a broadband internet connection.

Internet TV will bring people a lot more power over what they watch. Rather than having set scheduling, customers can request movies or news bulletins on demand. But making sure they can find the material they want, will be a key issue.

Even now, the current cable and satellite systems, which have hundreds of channels, are becoming difficult to navigate. Electronic programme guides that allow users to search for programmes by genre are becoming a crucial way to cope with the volumes.

What happens when there are not just hundreds, but thousands of programmes that can be accessed from all over the internet?

That is where Google, Yahoo and Autonomy hope to play a role.

Google and Yahoo already have the brand recognition from their work in internet search. Autonomy argues, however, that its technology is better suited to TV and the video.

Where Google and Yahoo rely on having video clips manually catalogued and tagged so that they can be searched using key words, Autonomy uses voice recognition software – also used by the US Department of Homeland Security to eavesdrop on terrorists – which automatically catalogues every spoken word in hundreds of thousands of hours of footage.

This makes the search quicker, more thorough, and more cost-effective, argues Mike Lynch, Autonomy founder and chief executive.

The company only wants a chance to prove itself – and this is what it hopes the joint venture in China will provide.

Mr Lynch says China is a good place for a lower-profile company to begin making inroads.

Google, MSN and Yahoo have failed to capture the Chinese search engine market in the same way as they have in the US and Europe, mainly because their key-word search engines struggle with the ideogram-based alphabet.

Autonomy’s technology – which does not rely on recognising key words – does not have this problem. “It is a lot harder to go into the US where there is massive brand momentum behind companies like Google,” Mr Lynch says. “The Chinese market is more open.”

Blinkx, which was founded by Suranga Chandratillake, an-ex Autonomy employee, will provide the front-end and branding for the venture.

Customers will be able to tap into the service to search for news and other programmes from 25 local and national TV companies.

Initially the content will be free, but in time, as the market becomes established, subscription or advertising-based models could be brought in.

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