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IBM's free OmniFind Yahoo edition: In search of "the catch"

The new IBM OmniFind Yahoo Edition enterprise search tool indexes up to 500,000 files and is easy enough for a reporter to install and use. And, it's free. So, what's the catch?

Good consumers are often skeptical of free things.

Accordingly, this week's launch of the new IBM OmniFind Yahoo Edition -- free, purportedly easy-to-use enterprise search software -- raised some eyebrows. Even IBM has admitted that it is doing "un-IBM-like" things, according to Philip Howard, research director with Towcester, U.K.-based Bloor Research, since free and easy-to-use are not usually the first adjectives that come to mind when it comes to Big Blue. But, there is no evident catch, Howard said, other than IBM's obvious desire that companies will upgrade to its business-class OmniFind search products after using the free version, shunning competitors Google and Microsoft in the process.

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The free, downloadable software is a collaboration between IBM and Yahoo, based on the open source Lucene indexing library. The tool indexes up to 500,000 documents per server and supports more than 200 file types and more than 30 languages. IBM claims that the OmniFind Yahoo Edition has a "three-click install," is easy to use and offers some tuning and customization capabilities. (See sidebar.) And, notably, search results use enterprise ranking algorithms, rather than public, Web-oriented, popularity-based algorithms, according to Aaron Brown, offerings manager for IBM Content Discovery.

"If you look at how data is distributed in an enterprise and how it's linked together, it's very different from the public Web," Brown said. "As we've designed the technology and algorithms, we've taken into account those differences and tuned the Yahoo technology for enterprise use."

IBM's strategy -- and the Yahoo question

IBM believes all companies can benefit from the new tool, Brown said. OmniFind Yahoo Edition can be useful for small and midsized companies or departments within larger companies, he said. It can be used for internal enterprise searches or external Web site searches. And, not to worry, Brown said -- IBM plans to keep the tool free.

Using IBM's OmniFind Yahoo Edition
IBM claims that installing OmniFind Yahoo edition is a "three-click installation process" and says it takes users "only minutes" to go from download to live searching -- even on a regular laptop. So this reporter tried it. After installation (indeed, three clicks), a simple graphical interface asks the user to select the Web sites and/or file directories to be indexed. The crawler starts immediately, and within minutes, a search on the Web interface returned results. If searchers want to look beyond their indexed files, Yahoo's public Web search features are accessible from the same search bar.  

There are functions for featuring specific links based on search terms, basic algorithm tuning, spelling correction, support for synonyms and shortcuts, query reporting, and the ability to customize the interface and results. For example, it's easy to turn the results screen green, replace the IBM and Yahoo logos with a picture of the family dog, change the "search" button to say "fetch," and require that any query of the term "data management" brings up

"This is not a short-term thing," Brown said. "We see that there's a lot of pent-up demand for basic enterprise search capabilities. Users have come to expect that basic search can be ubiquitous and free. It's time for the same thing to be true in the enterprise, so we're making it free and it will remain free."

However, IBM doesn't deny that its strategy is to drive upgrades and gain market share. The tool is a "natural entry point" to IBM's information access products, Brown said. While IBM is offering OmniFind Yahoo Edition paid phone support for $1,999 per server per year, the real goal is getting users to upgrade to products such as the IBM OmniFind Enterprise and Discovery editions and Information Server, Brown said. Users might want to upgrade in order to index more than 500,000 files, support more advanced security policies or access other data sources, since the free tool does not search content management systems or databases.

It will be interesting to see how well IBM's phone support sells and how many users actually upgrade, Howard said. It makes one wonder, though, if users do upgrade to an IBM enterprise product, where does that leave Yahoo?

Howard suspects that there may be more announcements coming from this IBM-Yahoo partnership -- perhaps extending the free tool to a paid version that indexes more files or some other product. The deal may be well-timed for Yahoo, he noted, which has made news with slumping stock prices, board-level changes and an onslaught of competition from Microsoft and Google.

Disrupting the search market

The release of IBM OmniFind Yahoo Edition definitely ups the ante in the enterprise search market, noted Susan Feldman, research vice president with IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based analyst firm. Major vendors have made serious forays into the search market this year, including Oracle, Microsoft and Google. IBM's tool will compete with Google's enterprise search appliances, which start at around $2,000.

"OmniFind Yahoo Edition is positioned squarely against Google's search appliance," Feldman wrote in a recent note. "But we expect that it may rock the lower end of the search software market as well. Vendors like ZyLAB, Coveo, Vivisimo Ultraseek (from Autonomy), dtSearch, Isys or X1 will need to prove their worth against this new, free contender by emphasizing their own advanced enterprise features such as multilevel or document-level security, access to additional information sources, interface design, business intelligence or reporting features."

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