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Google's Star Trek search dream

Google may dominate the search space, but it has dreams of emulating the Star Trek computer in coming years.

Craig Nevill-ManningAs engineering director Craig Nevill-Manning puts it, Google works well if the answer to your query is sitting on a webpage somewhere out there.

But users today require evermore complex answers to longer, increasingly complicated queries. And when it comes to collating information from multiple sources, search engines today are not equipped to tackle the task.

Nevill-Manning – who has overseen the development of products including Google Local (now Maps), Froogle (now Product Search), and the Flu Trends and Crisis Response projects, providing maps, imagery and a missing persons service after crises in Christchurch, and elsewhere – says a more structured search mechanism is on the cards.

“Froogle – now Product Search - took web pages which were about products you could buy, extracted names, prices, etc, then sorted and selecting, narrowing by various features.

“We’re working on doing this for the entire world across many different kinds of things – places, movies. It’s a long process but I think the end result will be something like the Star Trek computer,” he says, a sentiment recently echoed by Google fellow Amit Singhal (below).

A seemingly simple task like travel planning can spiral into a nightmare, between researching hotel, flight and rental car options, he says.

It’s not that there is a lack of quality information out there – it’s that it is not always presented in a structured way for search, and for now, there is no compelling reason for anyone to do so.

Kiwi born Nevill-Manning generally returns to New Zealand several times a year – in fact, he’s back this week for the Entrepreneursʼ Organisation Queenstown University conference.

The bulk of his time, however, is spent in New York. While Google started out in California, and did all its software engineering in Mountain View until around 2003, it now has about 40 engineering offices worldwide including one in Sydney. That’s Nevill-Manning’s work; he set up the first remote hub in New York City. Luckily, the heads of Google are “up for people giving things a go”. He was initially told he had to find at least 15 hotshot computer scientists there to make it work, and today there are 1200 scattered around.

“The tech scene in New York is really beginning to grow. Google made it safe for tech companies to start up in Manhattan.”

What about New Zealand businesses? Neville-Manning reckons there are plenty of companies doing interesting things with hardware, and taps the YikeBike and Martin Jetpack as examples.

“And there are smaller companies across the board that are cooking up … companies like Carnival Labs and Polar Bear Farm concentrating on apps and really going at that at a global scale.”

As Nevill-Manning puts it, if you have a fantastic idea, you can get it in front of people as soon as you can write the code.

“We’re much more constrained now by coming up with the idea than we were before. In that environment it’s increasingly important to get ideas built as quickly as possible then iterate and get feedback … Launch early and iterate, that’s the much better model.”

Events like Random Hacks of Kindness and Startup Weekend certainly espouse that philosophy – getting ideas designed, built and launched within 48 hours.

Weekend hacking is a great format, he says, for trying out new idea and improving on product features, whether it’s a sharp new app or a tool that will be useful in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Speaking of apps, what’s the one must-have Google tool in his book?

It’s Google Maps, without a question.

“If I was lost and had to find my way back to civilisation and I didn’t have my cellphone I might well starve to death without it.”

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