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VIP Q&A with Oren Etzioni

Oren Etzioni made his mark in Internet history when he co-developed the Metacrawler search engine while serving as an Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Washington. Etzioni also has played significant roles as an executive in the Internet industry. He served as Chief Technology Officer of Go2net and was a co-founder of Netbot, Inc., which was acquired by Excite in 1997. Etzioni currently divides his time between the U.W. Computer Science Department, Madrona Ventures Group and his family. Seattle.internet.com recently caught up with Etzioni for an exclusive interview.

seattle.internet.com: How did you come up with the idea for Metacrawler? How does it feel to have invented a technology that is used by so many people?

Oren Etzioni: We have been working since 1991 on a project at the University of Washington's Computer Science Department to build intelligent agents. Our species of agents (called softbots for "software robots") use software tools and services on a user's behalf. Our motto is: the user says 'what' and the softbot figures out 'how'. In 1995, my graduate student Erik Selberg suggested that we try out a simple, but highly practical, softbot for web search. The softbot would use multiple search engines, in parallel, on a user's behalf. We dubbed that softbot MetaCrawler, deployed it on the web, and its usage grew to millions of queries per day. It feels terrific to see our research yield something tangible that people use regularly and are quite passionate about.

seattle.internet.com: Do you think that we will be seeing more advancements in search technology in the near future?

Oren Etzioni: After commmunication (via e-mail or instant messaging) search is the most popular activity on the web. There is a tremendous amount of activity in improving search both in academia and in industry. Advances are happening at a rapid clip. For example, we developed a search engine, called Grouper, which groups search results to facilitate navigation of hundreds of search results. A company out of Pittsburgh called Vivisimo is now commercializing similar technology. That's just one example. In short, you ain't seen nothin' yet!

seattle.internet.com: What advice would you give to up and coming inventors?

Oren Etzioni: If you have something exciting in mind -- build a prototype and deploy it on the web. The web community is a great source of feedback and word of mouth really works. If you see the opportunity to start a company around your invention -- you might consider writing a business plan, building a team, and coming to talk to venture capitalists such as Madrona Venture Group (where I am a venture partner). We are always on the lookout for great ideas and world class company builders.

seattle.internet.com: In addition to being a partner at Madrona and a Professor, you have also worked in the past as an executive for an Internet company. What do you enjoy the most about each of these positions?

Oren Etzioni: Each of these positions has its own way ot making a positive impact on the world. As a Professor I enjoy working with students -- advising graduate students & teaching undergraduates. As an executive I enjoyed the ability to shape products that people use and develop business models around these products that enables these free products to become viable, self sustaining, businesses. For example, at Go2net I developed a viable business model for MetaCrawler and Dogpile which enabled them to bring in a substantial fraction of Go2net's revenue. In the VC world, I enjoy working with companies to define their product, technology, and business strategy. For example, I'm working closely with an east side company called Performant which is developing cutting-edge performance management products. I can't say much, since the initial product hasn't been released yet, but I believe that Performant will have a huge impact on the world of performance management for companies both on the Internet and off it.

seattle.internet.com: What do you believe are the type of Internet technologies that will be most useful in the the business and consumer arenas in the years ahead?

Oren Etzioni: Here's what comes to mind: First, digital signatures are going to revolutionize on-line transactions. Second, micro-billing is going facilitate and fuel advances in consumer products. For example, would you be willing to pay a fraction of a penny per query to search a superior search engine such as MetaCrawler ad free? Today, you can't because there's no practical way to charge you a fraction of a penny but that will change. Closer to home, technologies such as WildTangent web driver make interactive, multimedia web applications (such as games) easy-to-build and fun to use. On the business side, Asta Networks's router-based software detects Internet denial-of-service attacks in real time, giving targeted companies the opportunity to react before it's too late.