I dropped by Progress a couple of weeks ago for back-to-back briefings on Apama and EasyAsk. EasyAsk is Larry Harris’ second try at natural language query, after the Intellect product fell by the wayside at Trinzic, the company Artificial Intelligence Corporation grew into.* After a friendly divorce from the company he founded, if my memory is correct, Larry was able to build EasyAsk very directly on top of the Intellect intellectual property.
*Other company or product names in the mix at various times include AI Corp and English Wizard. Not inappropriately, it seems that Larry has quite an affinity for synonyms …
EasyAsk is still a small business. The bulk is still in enterprise query, but new activity is concentrated on e-commerce applications. While Larry thinks that they’ve solved most of the other technical problems that have bedeviled him over the past three decades, the system still takes too long to implement. His rough rule of thumb is that implementation — i.e., building the thesaurus – takes 10% as much effort as overall database design did in the first place. That comment leads to what seems to me to be a pretty obvious suggestion: Focus on selling to sites that have already installed a “semantic layer” (Business Objects’ term) or the equivalent while setting up their BI system – whether or not EasyAsk can get actual partnerships with BOBJ, Cognos, et al. And I’ll stop right there, because I’m not sure whether Larry’s comments on what they have or haven’t done in that regard were meant as general briefing material, or were under NDA in our client relationship.
In the e-commerce area, EasyAsk is a direct competitor to Mercado, with a lot of analogous functionality. As previously noted, they claim their users enjoy particularly strong revenue benefits. After talking about it with Larry, I now feel it’s a sincere and credible claim. Neither he nor I would claim the case has been proven with shining statistical rigor (and my doubts as to its fundamental merits remain greater than his). But Larry is a smart and honest man, and when we discussed it I didn’t happen to catch him in any obvious and uncharacteristic thinking errors.
Takeaways from the conversation included:
Customers are often software OEMs, especially in the health care and human resource areas.
SQL generation times are down to a millisecond or so.
MDX is a future direction for them, as an alternative to SQL. To the extent MDX syntax is ugly, that’s a plus for them, not a minus!
Larry feels they’ve gotten a lot better at navigating people to canned reports and the like, rather than just re-executing queries for them. On the other hand, when I told him a vision I first pitched on his behalf (and to him) in 1984 about application command-and-control, I didn’t get a lot of recognition. Too bad. That kind of thing is central to natural language’s potential ability to solve some of the inherent problems of dashboards.
The obvious voice recognition/natural language pairing now works pretty well for known users, but isn’t good yet for web applications.
Since being acquired by Progress they’ve become much more multilingual. (I guess the name “English Wizard” gives a clue as to how multilingual they used to be.)