A bit over a week ago, John Battelle asked his readers to describe the Perfect Search. I didn't have a chance to respond when I first read his request, but knew what I wanted to say. It just took me a little time to find what I was looking for (yeah, I see the irony in that).

Back in college I took a class called "Computers and Society." It was offered as Sociology 320 and taught by one of my favorite professors: Dr. Jerry Wicks. He was one of those guys who was several years ahead of nearly every other instructor on campus when it came to technology. But that's a topic for another post, really.

In class one day, he showed us a video that was produced by Apple Computer. The idea was to depict a possible future of computing 10 or 20 years in the future. I eventually found the video of Apple's Knowledge Navigator (14MB Quicktime), thanks to a post nearly a year ago from Jon Udell. The video quality is poor, but it's the only complete copy I could locate. Others were better but contained only fragments of the original.

It's interesting to note that Jon first saw that in 1998 1988 and I first saw it in 1994.

Anyway, the video illustrates things quite well.

To me, asking for the perfect search is a little like asking what the perfect job would be. I'd rather not need a job in the first place! And I'd rather have a high bandwidth link right to my brain, so I can just "remember" things.

But if we must search, I believe it should be a very natural and conversational thing--much like what you see in the video. Notice how the query refinement in the video is like talking to a friend that also happens to be a kick ass librarian or a research assitant? That "search engine" talks back and it works quite well.

Of course, that's all a made up fantasy from the mid 90s. But I think it's one worth going after.

So to answer John's original question: Just ask Apple about the Perfect Search. Someone there had it figured out at least 10 years ago.

Posted by jzawodn at September 18, 2004 08:54 PM

Reader Comments
# Ram said:

Apple seems to the place from where the best (or good, killer-app-type) things are created, nowadays. This inspite for the fact that their budget quite less than what MS has. Their OS is easy to use (buy geeks who need to tweak their OS, and their grandparents who need to use the internet), their devices are awesome..

I think Apple might really come out with a search device like the one they envisioned.

on September 18, 2004 10:19 PM
# Michael said:

The idea of a "Perfect Search" is great until you put a "cynical spin" as many have done in John Battelle's comments. What about the data being collected by the search organisations? This raises many of the issues that are talked about in Australia (and I suspect other places) as large private organisations implement CRM and begin matching data. While the original idea is to provide better service, we all know that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

However, on a more positive note. I find the whole concept fascinating, especially within certain domain spaces. Specifically within HRIS products (my personal interest) where we are trying to reduce the number of questions and transactions being handled by an HR specialist. Having a perfect search tool here would be of great benefit, especially when able to integrate external information into the results. Examples such as managing benefits and taxation, with an understanding of the user the system could more accurately answer questions around benefit enrollments and the impact on the individuals needs.

on September 18, 2004 10:36 PM
# echeslack said:

My blog link goes to a blog entry on this topic. I think kartoo has a good idea by at least suggesting refinements to your search (although I think the interface sucks, but that's another story). I don't think we are really hitting a technology barrier so much as a social barrier, as you suggest. Its the privacy issues that hold this back. I think people either need to give up some privacy, or they need to take some of the search into their own hands by having a component that does work for them and makes suggestions running on their own computer and then have the actual search work (with hints from user side software) done by yahoo, google or whoever.

Actually, now that I think about it, some sort of standardized search format including some sort of hinting system (i.e. take it further than just keywords) would be really cool.

on September 18, 2004 11:42 PM
# Dirk said:

LOL, thanks for that movie. "Nonono, it's not until, er ..." - "4:15"

Is this really only about search? I think it's a lot more.

on September 19, 2004 02:13 AM
# wbwither said:

According to his site, Udell saw the video in 1988, not 1998. Cool video.

on September 19, 2004 02:28 AM
# wbwither said:

um, any chance I could get my e-mail address removed there? I didn't realize that it would show up if I didn't put a URL (no blog for me). You can actually just delete these two comments.

on September 19, 2004 02:32 AM
# jean said:

if that happens.. please.. tell me we'll be able to change the guy's bow tie.

on September 19, 2004 04:16 AM
# Larry said:

Nice find on the Apple video. Can anyone pinpoint its exact production date? (Udell says he saw it in 1988.)

on September 19, 2004 11:34 AM
# Tom said:

Dude, nice! Made my day. Most of the technology is user side and not much of concern for privacy advocates (aren't we all?!).

As long as there is transparency and oversight, privacy issues are not as daunting. There will have to be some changes is corporate law and policy on an global scale, with the consequences being largely metted out by the negative impact on the business that abuse trust and/or information.

This technology is already here. Anyone used Dragon Naturally Speaking lately? It's freaky. You could easily (well, almost easily) create scripts and canned responses to emmulate AI like was done in this movie. Let's face it, unless the depicted device was using neural nets and massively parallel processing, the seeming human-like responces were just clever programming.


on September 19, 2004 12:28 PM
# Anjan Bagchee said:

This post actually helps me understand something else. Jerry was my thesis chair and I also worked on his technology projects, as a research assistant, through my stint at BGSU. And I think it must have in that circle that I heard your name. And all this time, I could not recall why your name sounded familiar :)

And you are right. He was certainly years ahead of others in the sociology department. And not only do I remember the video but he introduced me to Apple for the first time too!

on September 19, 2004 02:07 PM
# digerati said:

If indeed that video was created in '88 - then I would think Apple has a nice grasp on things. With PDA's today rapidly advancing in their technology and productivity rate - I wouldn't be surprised if something of that capability wouldn't be in development in the next 5 or 6 years. Maybe not quite as advanced, but certainly near it.

on September 19, 2004 03:24 PM
# Jon Udell said:

...Jon first saw it in 1998...


on September 19, 2004 04:33 PM
# Bruce Hoult said:

I'm sure I have a better quality -- and equally complete -- copy of Knowledge navigator on a CD somewhere. I'll see if I can find it.

I don't know when I first saw it but it was probably around 1990 -- there were poor quality QuickTime movies of it floating aorund as soon as QuickTime was first developed, but I saw it on VHS before that.

Note that the version you point to uses the Sorenson CODEC which is only six or seven years old. I'd expect the good copy I have to be Cinepac.

on September 19, 2004 04:47 PM
# Walter Underwood said:

The Apple Knowledge Navigator video was made in 1987. When you watch it, remember that the Macintosh had only been out for three years when that was made.

on September 19, 2004 04:52 PM
# Bruce Hoult said:

This MPEG1 copy is a little bigger frame size and better quality, especially in the sound, but the video shows artifacts from conversion from VHS (or similar) and has a few missing frames, presumably at the capture stage:


It's also four times the file size :-(

It says (C) Apple 1987 at the end, which the version you point to doesn't.

There is at least one interesting difference. The predicted vs actual graph is done qute differently. Your version shows the actual as individual data points forming a line higher than the predicted. This version shows the actual as a solid line that is lower than predicted. The lines styles are also quite different.

I'll try to find my archived copy when I get home tonight.

on September 19, 2004 06:16 PM
# Nick Arnett said:

1988 seems right for the production of the Knowledge Navigator video -- that was the year that Apple started talking about multimedia. Could have been 1989. I'm sure I have a decent copy of it around here somewhere, as well as references to when it came out in my old newsletter... if anybody really wants all that. It was fairly inspirational back then.

on September 19, 2004 06:44 PM
# Nick Arnett said:

As for perfect search, context is a huge problem, compounded and confounded by the ambiguity of language. If I learned anything in years of doing various kinds of advanced search technology, it's that language is very difficult stuff. For example, we often use the same words to mean absolute opposite things. It's so automatic that we don't even quite realize it (well, most people other than computational linguists and their friends). For example, "No waiting in line five!" could mean that line five is empty, so some people should go there, or it could mean that waiting is not permitted in line five. Or two of my favorite street signs, next to each other at a theater: "Truck parking only" and next to it, "Box office parking only."

More to the point, I don't think we generally appreciate how many value axes there are for information. Sometimes there's one answer to a question; find it and you're done. Other times, we want to get a big picture. Still other times, we want provocative points of view, sometimes points of view that reinforce our own.

One of these days, I've been telling myself for about 10 years, I'll write an essay on "info-diversity" and why it's as important as bio-diversity. Search engines ideally will (and are starting to) help us overcome the monolithic point of view that the mass media deliver in order to sell our eyeballs to advertisers.

The whole darn universe is information, by one viewpoint, which makes the perfect search engine impossible, or perhaps we're soaking in it.

on September 19, 2004 06:57 PM
# Leland Jordon said:


I had seen this video via another forum, and thought it was current. I must have missed every clue as to its original date.

Let me reiterate that:
I thought that this video was an entirely plausible conception of how smoothly searches will work in the near future, and I didn't know that it was from 1987.


on September 19, 2004 09:02 PM
# Seraphim Proudleduck said:

Apple seems to the place from where the best (or good, killer-app-type) things are created, nowadays. This inspite for the fact that their budget quite less than what MS has. Their OS is easy to use (buy geeks who need to tweak their OS, and their grandparents who need to use the internet), their devices are awesome..

I think Apple might really come out with a search device like the one they envisioned.

on September 20, 2004 12:55 PM
# said:

PLEASE TELL ME WHEN IS THE Iphone Coming To Puerto Rico

on October 1, 2007 08:09 PM
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