San Francisco based Powerset will be publicly launching a long-awaited beta version of the service in the coming weeks, the company told me yesterday. They are working on a new kind of search engine that will understand natural language searches and compete with keyword matching engines that dominate search today.
An early version of the search engine, which was demo'd to me yesterday at their offices, has been available to some users of their Powerlabs site. But for the most part, it's been kept very quiet.
The early version of the service will serve as a showcase for the user interface and engine itself, but it will not have a full web index behind it. For now, Powerset will query only Wikipedia and Freebase. But when I tested the service I had something very similar to the “Aha!” feeling that ran through me the first time I ever used Google. In short, it is an evolutionary, and possibly revolutionary, step forward in search.
I'll temper that statement since the company is not putting anything more than a tiny index of two sites behind the service for now. In particular, the fact that Powerset doesn't have to bother with spam control and other relevance issues (which is what made Google so great when it launched), means it can't yet be considered any kind of challenger in the search space. But anyone who uses it will be able to see the potential value of the engine when it is placed in front of a full web index.
For now the company is keeping specific features of the engine confidential, but I can say it has evolved significantly since a screen shot was released in mid-2007.
In preparation for the launch, some of the Powerset team have vowed not to shave until the product is released. They are chronicling their facial hair adventure on a site called Powerstache, which has been covered by Jessica Guynn at the LA Times.
Rumors have also been swirling around the company in general. A number of sources have said that Powerset is pitching for additional capital. And the company also appears to have put plans to hire a new CEO on hold – founder Barney Pell is still firmly in charge at the company.