Back in 2008 I declared that the information economy was giving way to what I called the search economy. The Internet was making it more important to know how to find information than to actually possess that information, because data — and therefore the fully-explored truth of any matter — might be constantly in flux. Even more to the point today, we need the same knowledge on many devices so it is usually better to find the link than to maintain multiple copies of aging data. This might explain in an ass-backwards way why Google just changed the name of its largest tech division from search to knowledge. A more accurate explanation for this name change is just that Microsoft’s Bing has better marketing than Google. But in the longer run the distinction between search and knowledge probably does mean everything.

Bing is a major influence on Google. Though Google is vastly more successful in terms of search volume, Bing has influenced Google’s look and feel, especially in the way that results are displayed. An even bigger success, though, has been Bing’s marketing campaign calling itself not a search engine but a Decision Engine — looking beyond the search to the answer.

Microsoft did more than just try to out-search Google. They gave some serious thought to how to make the quest for information on the Internet more productive and useful. Bing struck a chord with users and competitors alike and one result is that Google, too, is becoming more results-centric. That’s what is largely behind this perceptual shift from search to knowledge. It was behind Google’s Instant Search results, too — a technically non-trivial effort that lies at the heart of what this particular column is all about. For the moment, Google trading search for knowledge is just posturing, but in the longer run it has really significant meaning. It’s a game-changer.

“Not all smart people work at Sun (Microsystems),” Bill Joy used to say and not all smart people work at Google, either. You can put together the smartest team and still not produce the best product for any number of reasons, which Google is beginning to realize, especially as the company is having trouble retaining technical talent. It’s a small enough world where the current Google brain drain probably is worth the nine-figure bonuses the company has been handing-out here and there to keep important would-be defectors in the fold. But in the long run some of these big brains will leave anyway, so Google has to find a way to compete despite their loss. That way is through knowledge, the company has decided.

But actually moving from search to knowledge — from searching to finding — turns out to have a heavy systems component. As they show with Instant Search, Google’s sustainable advantage probably lies not in software but in hardware optimization. What they do may be a little better or a little worse, but if they can do it faster and (here’s the important bit) do more of it, Google will retain its lead and dominant market share.

This is a hardware war and Google so far is winning, primarily because most of their competitors don’t even realize that’s what is going-on.

Time for Cringely’s seventh law of information technology: all things evolve to abstraction over time, becoming uninteresting commodities. That’s what is happening right now in searching, which is why the major players are trying to jump to the next level, to finding. This is a case of evolve or die.

Microsoft and Google and their competitors, if any, may know a crapload of computer science, but for the most part that is becoming irrelevant. The fastest way to sort numbers was discovered years ago and mathematically proved. That’s not going to change. It is completely uninteresting trying to invent a faster method of sorting.

“What’s next after X?” on the Internet can usually be answered by turning the question into “what if X were utterly ubiquitous and free — what could we do then?”

That’s the question Google is now asking itself with prompting from Bing.

Next — the future of search…