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An Eager -- If Imperfect -- Research Assistant


Google (GOOG) and other search tools are wonderful research aids. But if you're writing a report in, say, Microsoft (MSFT) Word and you need to check a fact, you have to open a browser and go looking for information. What if you had software that anticipated your needs and fetched the information before you knew you wanted it?

I don't expect to see mind-reading software anytime soon, but a Windows tool called blinkx, from a startup of the same name, can sometimes do a good imitation. Blinkx, available as a free download from www.blinkx.com, has the feel of a not-quite-finished product with interesting potential.

When you install blinkx, it creates a little toolbar that appears in the blue title space at the top of a Microsoft Word or Internet Explorer window. (A test version works with Netscape-based browsers, including Mozilla Firefox.) When you read a Web page, work with a Word document, or compose a message in Outlook, blinkx scans the Web and your hard drive for relevant information. As it finds results, the program lights up icons representing e-mail messages and other local files, news sources, Web pages, Web logs, videos, and products for purchase. Click on an icon, and a list of links with the pertinent information drops down. The search is continual, so as the subject matter of the document changes, so do the search results. Blinkx doesn't drown you with results, providing at most the equivalent of the first page of a typical Google search.

THE APPROACH WORKS BETTER when you're writing or editing than when browsing. Search results come in fairly slowly, even with a fast broadband connection: I found I was finished with a Web page before blinkx had turned up anything interesting. The software comes into its own when you are working with a long, complex document. In this case, you're more likely to want to search for related information, and blinkx will have more time to do its job. For example, when I was writing a recent story on open-source software licensing, blinkx came up with useful Web and news links that changed paragraph by paragraph.

Blinkx retrieves news faster than it does general search results. While it did occasionally turn up a mysterious item -- such as a Los Angeles Times story on Michael Phelps's Olympic medals while I was reading a report on Cisco Systems' (CSCO) acquisition strategy -- most offerings were on target. The general Web and blog search was less satisfying, in part because the company is still in the process of building its Web index. The only source of video as of now is the BBC, which has undertaken the massive job of putting its archives of video online, indexed to facilitate searching. Eventually, blinkx hopes to expand search to other types of images. The purchases icon mainly produced links to related books, but that's also likely to be broadened: Partnerships with vendors are an important part of blinkx's somewhat sketchy business plan.

Local search was disappointing. Even after blinkx finished indexing my computer, it didn't always turn up all the applicable files. When I'm writing an e-mail to someone, I would expect it to find all e-mails on file to or from that person, but I always got an incomplete list. Oddly, blinkx's conventional keyword-search tool did just fine turning up the local files.

Someday the sort of thing that blinkx is trying to accomplish should get a lot easier. The World Wide Web Consortium's Semantic Web project is redesigning the Web to give search tools the ability to read and understand sites' descriptions of themselves. But such enhanced information-finding is years off, and Microsoft has just suspended plans to put such a feature in the next version of Windows. In the meantime, blinkx, imperfect as it is, points at a way to turn search results into information at your fingertips.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here

By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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