Ilya Segalovich: Computer pioneer whose internet search company predated Google


Thursday 01 August 2013 18:57
Ilya Segalovich was an internet pioneer and one of the founders of Yandex, the Russian search engine
Ilya Segalovich was an internet pioneer and one of the founders of Yandex, the Russian search engine

Ilya Segalovich was an internet search pioneer and one of the founders of Yandex, the Russian search engine which was conceived in 1993 and launched in 1997, a full year before its more famous American competitor, Google.

As a technology visionary Segalovich was known for thinking far ahead of his time. His colleague Roman Chernin described his perceptive abilities: "Sometimes it felt like talking to someone who lives five years in the future. Sometimes, you would understand very clearly that what you hear or see is only a flat, black-and-white projection of the multi-dimensional coloured picture he had in his head. This was difficult, but also interesting. Like solving a puzzle."

Segalovich was born in 1964 in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), the son of a geologist known for his research on chrome ore in the Urals. He followed in his father's footsteps and graduated with a degree in geophysics from the Sergo Ordzhonikidze Moscow Geologic Exploration Institute. However, it was his passion for mathematics and computing that defined the path of his future career.

The Yandex internet search engine owed its origins to Arkadia, a software company named after and led by his old schoolfriend Arkady Volozh, which Segalovich joined in 1990. The company had already created search software for an electronic version of the Bible and for worldwide patent research. Developing the technology to allow searching of the whole internet was the logical next step for Volozh and Segalovich.

The new website's portmanteau name, Yandex, coined by Segalovich in 1993, came from the simple but somewhat self-deprecatory phrase "Yet Another Index". He served as the company's chief technology officer and was responsible for the strategic direction of its technical developments.

Yandex was launched in September 1997 at the Softool exhibition in Moscow. The name has since become synonymous with internet searching in Russian-speaking countries. Google did not launch until September 1998 and to this day has not been able to achieve the same local recognition in Russia as its rival.

A year after launch the company was already experimenting with contextual advertising, displaying paid advertisements for products or services related to the user's search phrase. The revenue started flowing, and by 2002 the company had repaid its start-up costs and was moving into profit.

Yandex's's growing wealth allowed its founders to embark on philanthropic and charitable activities. So, for example, in 2007 the company established its School of Data Analysis, in which students could study for free on a two-year Masters course on data processing. The school's leader, Dr Ilya Muchnik, said, "Many of the fundamental technologies that internet users around the world use every day were developed in Russia, and this program is designed to centralise that academic know-how and ensure that innovation continues long into the future." Many graduates of the school went on to join Yandex.

Segalovich and his wife, Maria, set up the Children of Mary, a charitable organisation which helps provide rehabilitation and education for orphans through art and music therapy, giving them a sense of social belonging and increased confidence. The Russian lawyer and political activist, Alexei Navalny, spoke of Segalovich as "the most important pillar of the IT industry in Russia," adding, "He was an 'ideal capitalist' – he used his brain and worked hard to earn his money. He also worked for charity and was never afraid to support political projects."

In 2011 Yandex floated on the Nasdaq stock market. It is now valued at $10 billion and continues to have a local market share twice Google's. Last year the company went head-to-head with Google, Microsoft and Mozilla Firefox by introducing a browser program.

Talking in a recent interview about other possible future developments, Segalovich predicted the advent of "computational journalism", by which websites would be able to supplant professional journalists, replacing them with software that aggregated and automatically edited stories from a variety of internet sources. Asked elsewhere about a utopian invention that he wished he could have created, he said that he was much taken by the idea of Hermione's Time-Turner in the Harry Potter series of books. He said, "I translated all seven volumes of the story and read it aloud to my children. I would like some kind of miracle, a magic time wand, and for all orphans to be taken into families. For this invention I would pay any amount of money."

Segalovich, who had five children of his own with Maria as well as 10 adopted children, had been suffering from stomach cancer; he died of meningitis which was a complication of the disease. He made his last blog posting on 22 July. He was declared brain-dead on 25 July and two days later his life-support system was switched off.

Arkady Volozh said in tribute to his colleague and old friend: "Ilya's contributions to the founding and development of Yandex were invaluable. More importantly, his philanthropic contributions touched many children in need... We know that the strong technical team Ilya helped to build will carry on the work he cared so passionately about. Ilya was an encyclopedia in technology and his high ethical standards have always set the landmark for us all."

Marcus Williamson

Ilya Valentinovich Segalovich, internet search pioneer: born Gorky, Soviet Union 13 September 1964; married Maria Eliseeva (five children, 10 adopted children); died London 27 July 2013.

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