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Peter Norvig - current Google Research head and the company's former director of search quality - is exploring some sort of new-age search engine aimed specifically for students.

Wednesday, at the search-obsessed SMX West conference in Silicon Valley, Norvig was asked if he was doing anything in "20 per cent" time - Googlespeak for the one day a Mountain View week that engineers can use for pie-in-sky personal projects. "I'm starting to work now on education search," he said.

"We need to do a better job of supporting people who are taking a class or want to really learn something - something that's not just about coming into [the Google core search engine] for five minutes, but where someone wants to be led to a task over the course of a semester or a year.

"[I'm looking into] how that's different from short term search."

It should be noted that Mountain View already offers Google Scholar, but that's merely a collection of academic texts. Norvig appeared to be discussing an interface overhaul. He did not provide additional information.

Later in the conversation, Norvig said that Google will soon release some prototype software for juggling the vast amounts of email messages netizens are so often forced to. But he was vague about this as well. "We do have some experimental things we'll be rolling out, some tools for helping with that," he said.

But he also questioned whether email is the way forward. "Is email the right tool?" he asked. "For me, one of the reasons email is so bad is that I'm on all these legacy mailing lists that I don't really need to be on. Maybe just slashing that all down and starting over would help."

In other words, perhaps email should be replaced by a new online communication platform.

Norvig mentioned Google Wave and, well, Google Buzz as possible email replacements. This was the stated aim of Google Wave when it was first conceived by Lars and Jens Rasmussen, the two brothers previously known for building Google Maps. But it seems that even Google Research is unsure about whether Wave is the way to go.

Asked if Google Research was using Wave more than email, Norvig indicated it had yet to really catch on. "Some people are [using it]," he said. "But it's still people trying to figure out where it works. At a certain point, there's so many tools out there - even within the company. Do I make a Google Doc? A Google Wave? A Google Site? There are all these choices that seem arbitrary based on the formats more than based on the content. And that's just within our company.

"We're going to have to see some consolidation where you don't make the choice of what technology. You make the choice of what content you want to put out. You just create it and it gets put out in the right way." ®

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