Topix.net's Rich Skrenta said that Google is the environment and not the competition in search; Yahoo, Ask, and Microsoft have been working to define a new environment where the top of the search results delivers what a person wants to know.
Ask has been calling it Smart Answers, while Microsoft's Live Search group calls them Instant Answers. Yahoo uses its Shortcuts for this type of service, and will emphasize it more on the mobile platform with their new oneSearch technology.
All of these services attempt to fulfill one need, that of a rapid response of accurate information to a given query. Instead of trying to gain at Google's expense in contextual search, its competition appears to be conceding the broader battle in favor of winning people over on information quality. It's a theme that makes it easy to see who's winning that battle now; without question, Ask owns the space they call 'information at your fingertips.' Queries for topics like Siberian Huskies, local weather, or political figures bring forth richer responses.
Under CEO Jim Lanzone, Ask has made the tactical decision to place these results atop the sponsored search ads that appear on search result pages. Microsoft and Yahoo both render their quick answers under those boxes.
Yahoo accomplishes the quick answer concept with their Shortcuts. These appear when Yahoo Search determines a Shortcut would be relevant to one's query. Where Yahoo will drive this concept further is on the mobile platform. As they announced a slew of deals, including one with Opera that represented a win over Google, Yahoo disclosed the availability of its oneSearch for mobile devices.
A tour of oneSearch on Yahoo's Go site shows how, like Ask's Smart Answers, it will display "instant answers with just one click." The service makes use of Yahoo's extensive repositories of content, and seeing it in action may make one think Yahoo has a real winner.
They will have to compete with Microsoft in that mobile space, as Steve Ballmer and company very much want to have the handset environment in the way they own the desktop (and Google owns contextual search.)
Microsoft's Instant Answers seems to have dropped off the Live Search team's radar. A year ago this month, they were touting the addition of about a million facts to that service. It's nowhere near what Yahoo will offer on oneSearch, or what Ask has been doing with Smart Answers.
Other than weather and some sports facts, it's hard to see any evidence that Microsoft is taking the potential of fingertip information seriously. Against Google, they need a differentiator, and a colorful butterfly just isn't enough.