Late last month, approximately 1,300 executives, IT professionals, and curious onlookers descended upon the opulent Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel in balmy Orlando, Florida for FASTforward '08, a three-day business and technology conference--with an emphasis on search technologies and strategies--hosted by Fast Search and Transfer (FAST). The theme of this year’s conference, "The User Revolution," was a nod to the increasing prevalence of collaborative, social, Web 2.0-style technologies. John Lervik, FAST CEO and Co-founder, in his opening remarks at the conference, described a critical shift "that is placing users increasingly at the center of the information universe." Over the course of two days, a roster of illustrious and engaging keynote speakers took up this theme, filtered through their particular perspectives.
Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School stressed in his presentation that companies that adopt Enterprise 2.0 technologies and strategies will distinguish themselves from those companies that don't, and in doing so gain a tangible competitive advantage. Dan Tapscott, the author of last year’s Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, focused his talk on promoting the use of collaborative technology tools—such as wikis and open platforms--inside the enterprise. And Clare Hart, EVP of Dow Jones & Co., gave a captivating presentation about the changing expectations for search, including a drive toward "anticipatory search," in which information that users might not even know they need is retrieved for them before they search for it.
Hovering over FASTforward '08, and coloring much of the discussion of FAST's own plans for the coming months, was the news that Microsoft is angling to acquire the search company. Word hit the wires about the acquisition just a few weeks before the conference got underway, but all of the principals on both sides of the deal were well-prepared to address it (in as much detail as they were able) in front of the inquisitive crowd. Jared Spataro, group product manager for Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, gave a full half-hour presentation on the acquisition and its rammificatons on Tuesday morning. Spataro described how Microsoft "got religion" about enterprise search in 2006, and set out to find a way to bolster its high-end search offerings. Spataro said that Microsoft was drawn to FAST because of the company's practical vision, the high caliber of its employees, and its "best in class" technologies. "The objective of the acquisiton," Spataro said, "is not to steal technology or bring a lot of people over to Redmond, but to invest in European innovation."
Not surpringly, FAST took a few opportunities during FASTforward '08 to drum up its own ideas about where search technology is headed and show off a few of its products. FAST demoed a soon-to-be-released product, called Content Integraton Studio (CIS) that employs a graphical technique for mapping content input and output. The company also talked about an upcoming upgrade to its core search engine, which has already been implemented in a few of its major customers (including Reuters and Thompson). FAST is still testing the upgrade in advance of a general release.
On the whole, the conference was a stimulating--if sometimes flashy--forum on the state of search in theory and in practice. When such a long, impressive roster of keynoters each takes their turn trumpeting the ascendancy of the user, it's hard not to take the hint.