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Developer dream date

Early this year the folks at Lookout Software started releasing beta versions of their product Lookout - a search utility for Microsoft Outlook that I reviewed quite favorably back in March. The Lookout guys had identified a key problem with Microsoft Outlook: the built-in search features just plain stink. But they went beyond that common observation to build their own replacement, a utility that indexes all your e-mail to provide lightning-fast searches from an Outlook toolbar.

Apparently I wasn't the only one who thought that Lookout was a very nifty product: less than a year after they got going. Not a bad business plan for a developer: give away a product for a while, then get snapped up (and employed) by the mother ship.

There are a couple of things about this deal that interest me (beyond the wistfulness over never having sold out any of my own work to Microsoft!). First off, the purchase was made by the MSN division at Microsoft. They talk about it in terms of "achieving the MSN vision of taking search beyond today's basic Internet search services to delivering direct answers to people's questions from a broad range of information." At first I thought this was bad news for Lookout users because it didn't appear that they were going to be working with the Outlook team. But sources inside of Microsoft tell me that MSN actually owns all searching technology for the whole company now. This raises the possibility that we might see some unified search experience across Outlook, Windows and MSN/Web at some future point. The competitive threat that is Google is not being ignored.

Second, Lookout wasn't the only player in this space; others also noticed that Outlook search was exceptionally poor and did something about it. The two alternatives that I know best are X1 and Enfish. It will be interesting to see what becomes of these alternatives as Microsoft takes steps to shore up its own weaknesses in the search space. It's not impossible to compete with Microsoft, of course, but it's a lot easier when they're not in the niche.

Finally, a glance at the Lookout license reveals that it builds upon the Apache Lucene project. For all that it complains about open source destroying the world, Microsoft doesn't seem to have any problem with open source software when it suits them.

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