In an effort to challenge the Google-dominated search engine market, San Francisco-based startup Powerset is betting on its “natural-language” technology that is supposed to understand plain-English search requests as opposed to the “keyword” system used by other search engines such as Google and Yahoo.

The distinction means Web surfers will theoretically be able to get more meaningful results by typing more precise search requests in the form of straightforward questions like “What did Steve Jobs say about Apple?” instead of entering an ungrammatical mishmash like “Apple Steve Jobs said.”
Other search engines have been tackling natural-language search requests with little success. Powerset’s method is based on natural-language processing, which the company developed partly in-house and partly through a licensing agreement with Palo Alto Research Center, better known as PARC – the Xerox subsidiary responsible for breakthroughs such as the computer mouse and the graphical interface for personal computers.

The technology is expected to be ready sometime in 2008, but Powerset is allowing in a first wave of users starting today, who will get an early glimpse at the search engine – although in a very controlled environment. Users who are allowed in will be able to comment and offer suggestions.