With a Lifeline to London, Blinkx Builds the World’s Largest Video Search Index

11/30/10Follow @wroush

Celebrity obsession isn’t limited to Hollywood. Here in Silicon Valley, we’ve got our own versions of Brangelina and Justin Timberlake—they just go by names like Google, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. Part of Xconomy’s mission, though, is to look beyond the headlines for firms that are innovating in unusual ways. So it’s been a pleasure to get reacquainted lately with a San Francisco video search company called Blinkx.

I first met Blinkx’s founder, Suranga Chandratillake, back in 2004, shortly after the startup had been spun out by Autonomy, the San Francisco- and Cambridge, UK-based enterprise software company. Blinkx was taking technology developed at Autonomy to search unstructured data such as corporate documents and applying it to the consumer world, especially desktop computers. But within a year or two it had switched its focus to Web video. Even then, at the very dawn of the YouTube era, online video was burgeoning. Now, of course, it sucks up more bandwidth than anything else on the Internet. So Blinkx’s switch was prescient. And today it’s accumulated the single largest index of video content on the planet, covering more than 35 million hours of searchable content—more than Yahoo or even Google.

Blinkx hasn’t become a household name like YouTube, in part because the lion’s share of its business is providing video search services to other companies, such as Ask.com, Real Networks, and Infospace. But it’s a solid company that went public in 2007 and recently finished its first profitable half-year ever. When I caught up with Chandratillake recently (it’s pronounced Chawn-dra-TILL-a-kuh), I asked him to brief me on the company’s latest search technology, its revenue sources, and its unusual (for a U.S.-based company) decision to float its stock on the London Stock Exchange.

Suranga ChandratillakeThe tale Chandratillake told—involving years of experimentation and fine-tuning, both on the technology side and the business side—is actually far more typical of most Silicon Valley startups than the instant-riches stories that garner so much press attention.

What Autonomy, and its offspring Blinkx, are best at is working with unstructured data—stuff that doesn’t fit into the neat rows and columns of relational databases. That covers a lot, from e-mails to word-processing documents to Web pages, music, photos, and video clips. In fact, in its first couple of years Blinkx was known mainly for its desktop search tool, which indexed files on the hard drives of Windows computers and automatically grouped them into folders by context.

“Local machines were getting complex enough that you needed advanced search technology for that,” says Chandratillake. And for a short while, Blinkx’s tool was the only comprehensive desktop search utility available. But Microsoft, Apple, and Google were working hard to catch up, and they had the advantage of having hooks into their own operating systems and Web search indexes. Blinkx was overtaken, and ultimately abandoned desktop search. “What brings our team to work is not fighting a battle that everyone is fighting, but being able to define a new battlefield,” Chandratillake says now.

To survive, the company refocused its efforts on video search, which was “a great example of a place where our technology can provide a very valuable difference,” Chandratillake says. It’s also “a fast-growing area, with lots of opportunities to start new businesses,” he notes. To index a video clip—that is, to make it easier to find through an online search—Blinkx’s technology goes at the clip from … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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