This week, EMC announced a collaborative research network, with this headline: New EMC Innovation Network to Harness Worldwide Tech Resources, Accelerate Information Infrastructure Innovation. Among the areas that the research network will explore are Semantic Web, search, context, and ontological views.
There is a lot to feed on in this announcement but the most interesting aspect is the juxtaposition with other hardware giants’ forays into the world of document and content search software (e.g. IBM, CISCO), and recent efforts by software leaders Oracle and Microsoft to strengthen their offerings in the area of content and search.

One of the phrases in EMC’s announcement that struck me is the reference to “information infrastructure.” This phrase is used ubiquitously by IT folks to aggregate their hardware and network components with the assumption that because these systems store and transport data, they are information infrastructure. We need to recognize that there are two elements missing from this infrastructure view, skilled knowledge workers (e.g.content structure architects, taxonomists, specialist librarians) and software applications for content authoring, capture, organization, and retrieval. Judging from the language of EMC’s press release this might just be tacit recognition that hardware and networks do not make up an information infrastructure. But those of us in search and content management knew that all along; we don’t need a think tank to show us how the pieces fit together nor even how to innovate to create good infrastructure. Top notch professionals have been doing that for decades. Will this new network really reveal anything new?

EMC does not explicitly announce a plan to make search and information infrastructure product commodities but they do express the desire to build “commercial products” for this market. They have already acquired a few of the software components but have yet to demonstrate a tight integration with the rest of the company. Usually innovation comes from humble roots and grows organically through the sponsorship of a large organization, self-funding or other interested contributors. This effort to lead an innovation community to solutions for information infrastructure has the potential to spawn growth of truly innovative tools, methods and even standards for diverse needs and communities. Alternatively, it may simply be a push to bring a free-wheeling industry of multi-faceted components under central control with the result being tools and products that serve the lowest common denominator users.

From a search point of view, I for one am enjoying the richness of the marketplace and how varied the product offerings are for many specialized needs. For the time being, I remain skeptical that any hardware or software giant can sustain the richness of offerings that get to the heart of particular business search needs in a universal way. Commodity search solutions are a long way off for the community of organizations I encounter.