September 29, 2011
Editor’s Note: The Beyond Search team invited Craig Bassin, president of EasyAsk, a natural language processing specialist and search solution provider to provide his view of the market for next generation search systems. For more information about EasyAsk, navigate to www.easyask.com
This past February I watched, along with millions of others, IBM’s spectacular launch of Watson on Jeopardy! Watson was IBM’s crowning achievement in developing a Natural Language based solution finely tuned to compete, and win, on Jeopardy.
By IBM’s own estimates they invested between $1 and $2 billion to develop Watson. IBM ranks Watson as one of the 3 most difficult challenges in their long and successful history, along with spectacular accomplishments such as the Deep Blue chess program and the Blue Gene, Human Genome mapping program. Rarified air, indeed.
While many were watching to see if a computer could defeat human players my interests were different. Watson was about to introduce natural language solutions to the broader public and show the world that such solutions are truly the wave of the future.
The results were historic. Watson soundly defeated the human competitors. On the marketing side, IBM continues to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to tell the world that the time for natural language is now.
IBM is not the only firm to bring natural language processing (NLP) into the application mainstream:
- Microsoft acquired Powerset, a small company with strong NLP technology, to create Bing and compete head-on with Google,
- Yahoo, one of the original Internet search companies, found Bing compelling enough to strike an OEM agreement with Microsoft and make Bing Yahoo’s search solution,
- Apple acquired a linguistic natural language interface tool called Siri, which is now being incorporated into the Mac and iPhone operating systems,
- Oracle Corporation bought Inquira for its NLP-based customer support solution,
- RightNow Technologies similarly acquired Q-Go, a Dutch company also providing NLP-based customer support solutions.
Many companies are now positioning themselves as natural language tools and have expanded the once tight definition of NLP to include things such as analyzing text to understand intent or sentiment. This is the impact of Watson – it has put natural language into the mainstream and many organizations want to ride the marketing current driven by Watson regardless of closely aligned their technology is with Watson.
But let’s also look at Watson for what it really is – one of the most expensive custom solutions every built. Watson required an extremely large (and expensive) cluster of computers to run – 90 Power Server 750 systems, totaling 2,880 processor cores. It also required substantial R&D staff to build the analytics, content and natural language processing software stack. In fact, IBM didn’t come to Jeopardy, Jeopardy came to IBM. They replicated the Jeopardy set at IBM labs, placing a a great deal of horsepower underneath that stage.
The first foray of Watson into the real world will be in healthcare and the possibilities are exciting. Clearly IBM intends to focus Watson on some of the largest, most difficult challenges. But how does that help you run your business? You’re not going to see Watson running in your IT environment or on your preferred SaaS cloud anytime soon.
If Watson is focused on big problems, how can I use natural language solutions to better my business today? Perhaps you want to increase website customer conversion and user experience, better manage sales processes, deliver superior customer support, or in general, make it easier for your workers to find the right information to do their job. So where do you go?
That’s where EasyAsk comes in.
September 13, 2011
I read “IBM and Jeopardy! Relive History with Encore Presentation of Jeopardy!: The IBM Challenge.” Frankly with TV in the summer slump, a reprise of the competition between IBM and humans is not likely to kick off the fall TV season with a bang. Reruns are, in fact, recycled information.
The idea is that on September 12, 13, and 14, 2011, I can watch humans match wits with IBM’s natural language search system, Watson.
Now Watson, based on what I have heard, is quite a lot of Lucene (an open source search system which IBM uses in its OmniFind 9.x product), and an extremely large database of analytics and content. To some degree it is not too different from having Wikipedia on your hard drive with IBM’s highly customized proprietary software.
To make Watson work, IBM needed three key ingredients: (a) very large systems – ninety IBM Power 750 servers with four 8-core processors each (2880 cores total!), (b) numerous engineers from the IBM R&D Labs, and (c) an army of technicians to baby sit the machine and database. Watson does not understand spoken speech, but like the computer on my desk, Watson can accept typed inputs. Watson also does not work from my iPad or my mobile phone.
While it is a solid achievement and nice step forward for Natural Language, the reality is that Watson is pretty much a raw demo from the R&D labs, and the Jeopardy! angle is an expensive and somewhat amusing marketing play. Not many Jeopardy! watchers are going to license IBM’s natural language processing technology. A better question is, “How many Jeopardy! watchers know what natural language processing is anyway?”
The problem for me is that television is not the real world. Reality shows are loosely scripted. When I see a commercial television production, the operative word is postproduction. The video wizards snip and segue to make the talent and the floor personnel, the writers, the sound team, the videographers, and the teleprompter operator fuse as a seamless whole.
But let’s look at Watson’s impact in the commercial software world. Jeopardy! is a show and the Watson system and content is highly customized to the show. In applying Watson to the real world, I personally have some doubts about how “smart” Watson is. Watson has potential but clearly needs much more work to prove it can be applied to everyday business problems due to the immaturity of the technology and the tremendously high cost of the systems and the databases involved.
September 6, 2011
An Expert System Flash Report
Recently, I’ve been hearing a lot of chatter about EasyAsk’s innovative natural language analysis-commerce search software. In June, EasyAsk partnered with the social networking giant Facebook to allow users to search and purchase products without having to ever leave the confines of Facebook’s familiar interface. Now, EasyAsk customer DollarDays International, one of the premier online wholesaler and closeout companies, is talking about the success they are having with the EasyAsk eCommerce Edition solution.
DollarDays selected the EasyAsk eCommerce Edition, the industry’s leading e-commerce search and merchandising solution to help increase conversion rates, deliver a better customer experience and give its marketing team a more agile merchandising capability. The EasyAsk natural language technology (NLP) provided a more powerful, yet easier to use search and merchandising for their e-commerce site which distributes over 140,000 products with over 5,000 categories and sub-categories.
DollarDays President and CEO Marc Joseph stated in a September news release entitled, Dollar Days Rings Up E-Commerce Dollars Using EasyAsk Natural Language Search and Merchandising:
The most successful e-commerce sites get the customer to the right products the fastest, speeding the buying process. EasyAsk natural language search allows our customers to find the exact product in a single click, increasing our customer conversion rates. EasyAsk also makes our merchandising more agile, which is essential in our business where product offerings are continuously changing.
Online retailers like DollarDays are recognizing the fact that in order to stay ahead of their competition their products must be as accessible to their customer base as possible. EasyAsk software products go far beyond traditional keyword search, allowing users to express searches in a highly descriptive way; for example:
blue mens polo shirts under $50
The EasyAsk system then delivers on point results. Our research suggests that the more quickly the customer gets to the products he/she wants, the more likely the customer is to purchase. Improving customer conversion is one of the key benefits of the EasyAsk approach in my opinion.
My take is that EasyAsk appears to be gaining momentum as they continue to adapt its e-commerce search and merchandising software to meet the needs of the various companies they serve. EasyAsk offers versions of its patented system which both in a SaaS (software as a service or hosted) environment and as an on premises installation. The architecture of the EasyAsk NLP and e-commerce system allows an EasyAsk customer to to switch easily between the two implementations if the client’s needs change.
EasyAsk works with virtually all of the leading e-commerce platform software. EasyAsk’s system now supports all three commerce channels: the Web, mobile and Facebook. At this time, EasyAsk may be one of the few if not the only e-commerce vendor able to support each of these three options. The result? EasyAsk gives its licensees a powerful solution and options which help enhance return on investment.
Stephen E Arnold, September 6, 2011
Sponsored by Pandia.com
August 31, 2011
The world of customer relationship management (CRM) just got a lot sweeter a few months ago with the announcement that Sugar CRM is partnering with EasyAsk. SugarCRM is a leader in the world of customer relationship management. SugarCRM said:
SugarCRM helps your business communicate with prospects, share sales information, close deals and keep customers happy. SugarCRM is an affordable web-based CRM solution for small- and medium-sized businesses. Offered in the Cloud or on-site, it is easy to customize and adapt to the way you do business.
“EasyAsk and SugarCRM to Provide Natural Language Search and Analysis,” covers the news of this exciting joint venture. We learned:
EasyAsk and SugarCRM announced . . . at SugarCon 2011 that they will team up to offer EasyAsk for SugarCRM, a new version of EasyAsk with natural search and analysis software integrated with SugarCRM. The integrated product will deliver SugarCRM information through EasyAsk’s language interface and tools. With EasyAsk for SugarCRM, users can ask questions in English and get immediate answers FROM THEIR SugarCRM system.
The natural language processing (NLP) offered by EasyAsk allows users to query and communicate in English, smoothing the language barrier between man and machine. EasyAsk’s NLP technology and engineering really move the SugarCRM cloud offerings to the next level.
We are glad to see such a natural partnership taking place between two innovators. Other businesses, especially those in eCommerce and mobile apps, would do well to incorporate the EasyAsk language interface and tools into their offerings. Doing so would most certainly increase user satisfaction and reduce their own engineering and design stress.
Other independent software vendors have embedded the EasyAsk natural language interface into their offerings with considerable success. Among the companies using EasyAsk’s NLP technology are Siemens, Personnel Data Systems, Ceridian, and Gensource.
Although IBM has been intent on wowing the consumer with the Jeopardy game show demonstration, EasyAsk has been building a market for real-world natural language solutions. In addition, EasyAsk has also delivered a version of its NLP tools on NetSuite, one of the leaders in software as a service enterprise resource planning solution providers.
The EasyAsk-SugarCRM partnership came together smoothly, with both firms able to sweeten their product offerings while solving problems for licensees. We will continue to cover EasyAsk. We think the search firm will continue to prove itself a market and technology leader.
Stephen E Arnold, August 31, 2011
Sponsored by Pandia.com
August 24, 2011
EasyAsk is a company that leverages its incorporation of natural language processing in order to boost its information retrieval technology. EasyAsk offers an alternative to traditional enterprise search and is having a strong impact on eCommerce as it relates to “findability.” The company told us:
Founded in 1999 by Dr. Larry Harris, a computational linguistics professor and internationally recognized expert on database systems and computerized natural language. EasyAsk technology is used today by leading retailers, manufacturers, financial services institutions, government agencies and pharmaceutical and health care organizations around the globe.
Mobile commerce is the undeniable way of the future and EasyAsk is shaping how it will look. John Morell, VP of Product Marketing, wrote “Mobile Apps and User Experience” for the company blog, addressing how navigation and search must be treated differently in the mobile context. He spoke to some of the considerations made when developing EasyAsk eCommerce mobile. We learned:
The screen real estate on a mobile browser is vastly smaller than that on a PC or Mac. This says that excellent search is critical. You need to pinpoint search results because wading through pages of results in a mobile browser would frustrate a user and cause them to abandon. But excellent navigation is also important due to the screen real estate constraints. Using richer, dynamic search criteria in the navigation, such as product attributes . . . allows visitors to find products in 1 to 2 clicks, rather than plowing through pages of categories – increasing the chances of conversion.
Other vendors, such as X1, are pushing into this territory as well. However, EasyAsk has a definite edge in its tested usage of natural language processing. An “Interview with Craig Bassin,” EasyAsk CEO, is a good reference for how the company got its start and why it can currently stand toe-to-toe with others in the field like Endeca. Mr. Bassin said:
EasyAsk’s unique natural language technology helps people find information faster and easier by enabling them to perform e-commerce searches or enterprise data searches in plain English, making it easier for users to express what they want and delivering a more accurate answer. The technology is used in two products: EasyAsk eCommerce Edition, an e-commerce search and merchandising solution that has proven to drive the best buyer conversion rates in the industry, and EasyAsk Business Edition which offers the easiest, most intuitive manner to search and explore corporate data.
EasyAsk is proven in the market, but it is not stuck in the success of its past. Continuing to innovate, the company looks for new ways to improve not only user experience, but also client satisfaction. EasyAsk and its natural language processing looks good to me.
Stephen E Arnold, August 24, 2011
Sponsored by Pandia, publishers of The New Landscape of Enterprise Search