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Saturday morning: time for those weekend chores. Need to find the telephone number for your local dry cleaner, work out where to buy a new car or discover an anagram for “a fine cast”?
The chances, increasingly, are that you will turn to that magical, omniscient oracle of the internet age: the search box. The single line to enter your curiosities and desires always has an answer (or, to be precise, 9,387,500 answers, beginning with numbers 1-10).
This is something already taken for granted as the internet celebrates its 10th birthday as a mass-market medium - Netscape, the first company to popularise the web browser, made its much-heralded stock market debut a decade ago. Spam, viruses and porn are not the only results: instant access to the collective human memory was also part of the deal.
The more that human activity moves on to the internet, the greater the power of the search engines. Take media and entertainment. People once dreamed of 500-channel television: once you can plug your TV into the internet, though, why stop at 500 - or even 5,000? With a search engine as your guide, find anything you want - at least, just as soon as the media companies have worked out how to fit this liberating capability into their business plans.
Or take the simple act of shopping. Comparison shopping sites, where search engines find and display details of similar goods, are already pushing us towards the economists’ dream of markets shaped by perfect information. The internet’s great gift to humanity is the abolition of distribution costs for anything that can be reduced to digital ones and zeros. For all those media businesses which have been shaped by high distribution costs and artificial bottlenecks - from broadcast TV stations to newspapers such as this one - that is a sobering thought. For all those retailers who have relied on the ignorance of shoppers to charge a higher price, the days of making easy money are receding.
The short history of the internet business, though, is a reminder that search, though powerful, is not guaranteed its central position in online activity. New tools can rise to prominence quickly in this new medium; indeed, it was only when Google turned search, already a familiar internet activity, into a more useful way of finding information that it became central to the online experience.
Once the novelty wears off and as the expectations of users continue to rise, today’s search engines are likely to feel less useful. Rather than a simple answer to a question, they mostly list reams of websites, many barely relevant. Raising the relevance standard - anticipating what you are looking for when you type two or three words in a search box - is a massive technical challenge that may prove beyond the capabilities even of powerhouses such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
Meanwhile, newer ways to navigate the ever-expanding internet are being invented all the time. One of the most promising, RSS, “pushes” information to users based on preferences expressed in the past. Combined with artificial intelligence capable of anticipating your needs, such tools may one day supply the information or entertainment you want long before you turn to a search engine.
A decade from now, who knows what the internet will have become or how we will use it? Just for today, though, turn to Google and enjoy your new omniscience.
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