Microsoft buys troubled "Fast" search engine firm for Web ad serving

In the midst of the world's CES frenzy, Microsoft today announced plans to acquire Fast Search & Transfer, a financially and legally troubled Norwegian-based software firm offering highly regarded search software for online ad serving.

The move could give Microsoft a leg up against its competitors in the online advertising space. Fast stock is traded in the Oslo Stock Exchange, where Microsoft has placed a bid for 19 Norwegian kroner per share -- what Microsoft calls a 42% premium over yesterday's closing price.

Founded in 1999, Fast originally played in the enterprise search market. Over the past year, though, the company has been migrating toward businesses in the area of online ad serving.

Fast's solutions include Enterprise Search Platform (ESP), a software framework designed for efficient indexing of searchable content, along with a series of search-derivative applications (SDAs) for uses such as online publishing, business intelligence, and mobile search.

One of Fast's SDAs, an application called Fast AdMomentum announced early last year, is designed to let media companies sell and serve ads on their own Web sites, without needing to pay an ad agency or an online "middleman" such as Google.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been slimming down its SharePoint portal technology in ways that reportedly lend it to use as an online ad serving platform.

Fast's solutions use technology from Stellent, a property acquired by Oracle, for inputting various file formats, and from BBN for speech recognition, for example.

Over the past couple of years, though, Fast has suffered a number of other blows, including issues raised by Goldman Sachs around lack of customer payment; the loss of Norwegian newspaper company Schibsted as a major customer; questions around the legitimacy of a deal with Walt Disney; and layoffs -- announced last June -- of 20 percent of its staff.

In addition, several board members have recently resigned from Fast.

Yet over the same time frame, Fast has also gained increasing recognition among industry analysts savvy about search technologies.

In a report issued in mid-2006, analysts at Forrester Research pointed to the "extensive search capabilities, broad platform focus, and significant market presence" of Fast.

More recently, in its 2007 Information Access Report, Gartner Group has placed Fast in its prestigious "leaders quadrant."

Earlier on, Microsoft's competitors in Web advertising had been acquiring search technologies of their own.

In 2003, online search specialist Yahoo acquired Overture, thereby obtaining an analytic services software package known as Keylime. In 2005, Google bought up Urchin. However, shortly before its acquisition by Yahoo that year, Overture was sued by MRT Micro ASA over Overture's attempted acquisition of Fast Search & Transfer.

MRT Micro ASA claimed that it owned some of the technology that Overture wanted to obtain through the purchase.

Even before this morning's announcement, Fast intended to present a conference dubbed FastForward '08 in mid-February in Orlando, Florida.

Microsoft plans to hold a teleconference later today providing additional details about the impending deal with Fast, which is expected to close in the second quarter of this calendar year.

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