You land late in the evening in a city where you know nobody. You did not have time to book a hotel, your luggage has not turned up on the carousel--and the plane's air conditioning gave you a sore throat. What to do?
With your cell phone, you first Google your suitcase--it has a small implanted chip that responds to radio waves with a GPS locator--and it turns out that your luggage has been deposited 200 yds. away in the next terminal. As you walk over, you search for a hotel room; the screen of your cell shows you pictures of several hotels in your price bracket, with views from individual room windows. Your search engine gives you a list of pharmacies that are still open at this hour, and tells you that your favorite blues band will be playing at a festival in the city's park over the weekend. The engine can search your desktop back home, and it reminds you that a college friend e-mailed you a year ago to say he and his wife were moving to this city (you had forgotten). You decide to invite them to the festival.
What you have just tasted is the future of search. It will change the way humans interface with computers and make today's methods seem as outmoded as telex machines and brick-size mobile phones. "Search will ultimately be as good as having 1,000 human experts who know your tastes scanning billions of documents within a split second," says Gary Flake, one of just seven Distinguished Engineers at Microsoft, who are paid to think big thoughts. "It will model the human brain."
To be sure, you can already access an estimated 10 billion pages of online text--thanks to Google, Yahoo!, MSN and other search engines. Americans conducted more than 4.8 billion searches in July--a 22% increase over July of last year, according to a study by comScore Media Metrix. But who needs 14,120,000 results in response to a simple question? People don't want a list--they want an answer.
So the battle is on for the next generation of search, which will be smarter and more tailored to the individual, embrace video and music--and be accessible from any device with a chip. By 2010, search-engine advertising will be a $22 billion industry worldwide, up from an estimated $8 billion today, according to Safa Rashtchy, a senior analyst with Piper Jaffray in San Francisco. It's the reason search has become the most hotly contested field in the world of technology.
While Google is still the forerunner in search, with 36.5% of the queries, Yahoo! is a strong runner-up, with 30.5%, and MSN stands at 15.5%, according to comScore Media Metrix. In mid-August, Google announced that it plans to raise an additional $4 billion to fund its next round of growth. The Big Three are investing aggressively in search technology, and with their deep pockets, they are likely to remain the innovation and market-share leaders for some time to come. But a crop of new start-ups, mostly clustered in Silicon Valley and Seattle, offer a glimpse of the next frontier of search, where imagination has no limits.
PICTURE AND VIDEO Now that still and moving images are increasingly digitized, they too can be searched with a click. Singingfish, acquired by America Online (which is owned by Time Warner, TIME's parent company) two years ago, can search AOL's video library of 15,000 titles, plus millions more over the Web, by looking for their titles and other attached identifying text, known as their metadata.