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Google, Apple on ice

Google could find itself taking blows from a Norwegian rival, much as Apple did when facing Sun in a hockey rematch. Both contests could prove to be more entertaining than this year's Webbys.

I try to keep a low profile, but every once in a while I can't resist lifting my fedora to bask in the glare of celebrity with which this column has bathed me these last six years.

Yes, it's true, I went to the reunion of my class at Attrition Valley High, where the cruel skid marks of Fortune's wheel were everywhere apparent. There stood the once-popular kids, the golden girls and boys, now on their third marriages, their fourth careers, all marked up by Botox accidents and by life itself. Meanwhile we, the nebbishes, nerds and losers are--apart from a failed start-up or two--none the worse for wear.

Perennially popular Google ought to watch out for reversals of fortune. Fast Search & Transfer, based in Oslo, Norway, is rumored to be in talks with both Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN for the privilege of answering search queries on those portals.

A Yahoo deal would be an especially hard blow to Google, which has powered search to the portal since it won the account two years ago from Inktomi (another reversal-of-fortune victim). Skintelligent analysis suggests Yahoo is looking askance at Google's contract, which expires this month, because of its mounting competitive threat to Yahoo.

Previous rumors have placed Yahoo across the bargaining table from Google in a failed acquisition bid.

But Google may live to regret spurning Yahoo's offer. The Oslo competitor is fast nipping at Google's heels in the race to be, and stay, search king. This week Fast said its AlltheWeb public service, with a cult following among researchers, bested Google in the size of its crawled Web, now serving up 2.1 billion pages vs. Google's piddling 2.07 billion.

The company, whose early investors included Dell, is also winning major corporate accounts, including nabbing auction giant eBay, according to Fast CEO John Lervik. It already serves as the back-end search provider to Lycos and InfoSpace in the United States and has major customers overseas including the No. 1 and No. 2 European Internet service providers, T-Online and Tiscali.

The campaign for the Yahoo account has occasioned some mudslinging on the part of at least one of the candidates.

Lervik cast aspersions on the "freshness" of Google's database, claiming Fast refreshes every seven to 11 days, while many pages on Google refresh every 28 days.

Google replied: "We take all of our competitors seriously, but we remain focused on building the world's best search engine." If not the world's best verbal kung fu.

Elsewhere in search, a Fast deal with Microsoft would take what wind remains in Inktomi's sails since losing the Yahoo account.

Speculation started about Fast's potential partnerships with Yahoo and MSN in Digi.no, an online publication from Norway. But Lervik says that his country's papers "speculate a lot" compared to those in the United States. Someone apparently hasn't bookmarked this column.

Yahoo declined to comment on "speculation," but said it talks to "all the usual suspects" in the industry when forging partnerships. Microsoft had no comment.

Meanwhile, an Oslo high-tech Skinsider said Google may have met its match.

Fast's "quality of search is on par with Google, and now they have more pages as well," said our Skinformed Norwegian. "The rumors make a lot of sense. They have a bunch of Ph.D.s in the basement, just like Google. They just haven't been as good at the packaging."

Remember the Webbys?
The Webby Awards held their annual bash this week and it was, well, a bit bashful. We knew the world had changed when we found parking right out front.

The ceremony itself, at San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor, accommodated a scant 315 people--about a tenth of last year's capacity in the War Memorial Opera House. Nominee National Geographic came all the way from Washington, D.C., only to be refused entrance by fire marshals playing bouncer. Movement was so restricted in the Palace that Evite couldn't even get up to the stage to accept its award.

Without a telecast (or press pass!) to see the ceremony, ticket-holders milled about the Palace's elegant halls, with its marble columns and art displays, and naturally enough clustered around the open bar, courtesy of sponsor Absolut. One attendant, representing the Burning Man Web site, could have won a prize for understatement when she called the event "minimalist." AOL, which won the new Webby/Nielsen/NetRatings award for "top U.S. property," was a no-show.

Last year The Rumor Mill launched its own prize of prizes, for the best of the Webbys' most inspired and ingratiating feature, the five-word acceptance speech. This year's winner, hands-down, was by the guys who run The Onion. On accepting the chunky metal award, they said: "Airport security should love this!"

On Sun's turf
There may be no chunky metal award in the cards for Apple, but the company is fighting gamely on--wielding hockey sticks, no less. After losing to a well-oiled Sun team earlier this year in its hockey debut, the Mac Attack joined a league and has been practicing hard.

The Rumor Mill attended a rematch last week when Apple took on Sun at Logitech Ice in San Jose. But Sun defeated Apple 5-2. A much-improved Apple team skated to early 1-0 and 2-1 leads, but Sun came back, knotting the score at 2 at the end of the second period and taking the lead early in the third period.

Perhaps Sun is worried that its stylish counterparts are skating a little close to its turf now that Apple is in the server market.

Apple already has one ex-Sun player on its team and seems to be in the market for a few more switchers.

Anyone can play on my team--all I require are your rumors.