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EDITIONS
Monday, 6 March, 2000, 15:07 GMT
The growth of Altavista
A still from an advert for Altavista
Adverts such as this have added glamour to Altavista
Altavista is one of the best known names on the internet.

In just five years it has grown to become the site tens of millions of people go to when they want to find references to a particular subject on web pages.

Despite only launching a UK-focused service in December, Altavista says 2.5 million Britons have already used it.

Clearly it is not known for being an internet service provider (linking users to the array of information on the internet). Rather it is known as a site where users can search those millions of web pages.

Type in "unmetered internet access" at Altavista.co.uk and it finds, within a few seconds, 683,973 web pages in the UK and Ireland with at least one of those words mentioned.

Palo Alto

Most of these may be irrelevant but the top one is accurately enough the Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications.

Altavista - now without the big V in the middle - was created in 1995.

Its origins lie in a process developed by staff to search for key words in the store of e-mails built up at computer maker DEC's research labs in California.

This process, says the company, was a vital tool for settling technical debates.

The name itself is said to have been the result of the word Alto, as in Silicon Valley town Palo Alto, being left on a meeting room 'whiteboard', next to the word Vista.

The company introduced its internet search technology in February 1997, four months later adding a multilingual search capability.

Changing hands

Altavista became part of Compaq when the latter bought DEC in June 1998. It was rapidly installed as the favoured search engine for Compaq desktop PCs.

During 1999 Altavista expanded on the web from being solely a text search operation to include an increasingly wide range of other web activities.

Initially a good way of showing the capabilities of DEC's computers, Altavista had transformed itself into a fully-fledged internet portal, including an online shopping operation.

In August last year, venture capital company CMGI bought Altavista from Compaq.

Soon afterwards Altavista launched a nationwide free-dial-up internet service, signing up 500,000 users in the US within three months.

Unlike the dominant US ISPs, Altavista users do not have to pay a monthly fee. Instead the money comes from rather dominating advertisements on the screen.

Late entry to the UK

Shortly afterwards it was reported that CMGI was keen to float Altavista this year, with what last November was a target value of $5bn.

Given the vast valuations placed on internet related companies, the more success it has as an internet service provider in the UK, the higher the price it will be able to fetch at flotation.

The UK's market leader, Freeserve, which had about 2.5 million UK visitors in January is valued at 9bn ($14bn).

Altavista's move is seen as an attempt to make up ground on Freeserve, MSN and the other multitude of UK ISPs.

It is a fairly dramatic start for former advertising executive Andy Mitchell, appointed in January to be its UK managing director.

Mr Mitchell, who joined from DoubleClick UK, was its first UK-based member of staff.

He knows that Altavista, like Yahoo, America Online and Netscape, is a name which is closely associated with the internet.

It may have taken a while to exploit that fact, but that is what it appears to be trying to do belatedly in both the US and the UK.

See also:

06 Mar 00 | Business
06 Mar 00 | Business
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