Progress and EasyAsk

Analysis of natural language query/e-commerce technology EasyAsk and other text analytics efforts at Progress Software. Related subjects include:

May 30, 2009


The newsletter/column excerpted below was originally published in 1998.  Some of the specific references are obviously very dated.  But the general points about the requirements for successful natural language computer interfaces still hold true.  Less progress has been made in the intervening decade-plus than I would have hoped, but some recent efforts — especially in the area of search-over-business-intelligence — are at least mildly encouraging.  Emphasis added.

Natural language computer interfaces were introduced commercially about 15 years ago*.  They failed miserably.

*I.e., the early 1980s

For example, Artificial Intelligence Corporation’s Intellect was a natural language DBMS query/reporting/charting tool.  It was actually a pretty good product.  But it’s infamous among industry insiders as the product for which IBM, in one of its first software licensing deals, got about 1700 trial installations — and less than a 1% sales close rate.  Even its successor, Linguistic Technologies’ English Wizard*, doesn’t seem to be attracting many customers, despite consistently good product reviews.

*These days (i.e., in 2009) it’s owned by Progress and called EasyAsk. It still doesn’t seem to be selling well.

Another example was HAL, the natural language command interface to 1-2-3.  HAL is the product that first made Bill Gross (subsequently the founder of Knowledge Adventure and idealab!) and his brother Larry famous.  However, it achieved no success*, and was quickly dropped from Lotus’ product line.

*I loved the product personally. But I was sadly alone.

In retrospect, it’s obvious why natural language interfaces failed. First of all, they offered little advantage over the forms-and-menus paradigm that dominated enterprise computing in both the online-character-based and client-server-GUI eras.  If you couldn’t meet an application need with forms and menus, you couldn’t meet it with natural language either. Read more

June 19, 2008

The Text Analytics Marketplace: Competitive landscape and trends

As I see it, there are eight distinct market areas that each depend heavily on linguistic technology. Five are off-shoots of what used to be called “information retrieval”:

1. Web search

2. Public-facing site search

3. Enterprise search and knowledge management

4. Custom publishing

5. Text mining and extraction

Three are more standalone:

6. Spam filtering

7. Voice recognition

8. Machine translation

Read more

August 3, 2007

More on text processing in CEP

StreamBase isn’t the only complex event/stream processing (CEP) vendor doing text processing. Progress Apama is as well. Stemming, fuzzy matching, and so on seem to happen all the time. But there’s also at least one case where they flat-out do sentiment analysis.  Edit:  I presume this is in the investment market, as that’s where most of Progress Apama’s business is. Read more

July 16, 2007

Progress EasyAsk

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. Read more

May 1, 2007

Huge e-commerce gains claimed by everybody

The folks at Progress claim huge conversion rate benefits to EasyAsk, although unfortunately so far I’ve been unable to drill down and see what those numbers really mean. (Flagship customer = Land’s End.) Baynote makes more modest but still large claims. (Flagship customer = no big names that I’m aware of.) Endeca is clearly the market leader. (Flagship customers = Wal-Mart, Home Depot.) Mercado and Inquira are important players, at least in certain verticals.

I think it’s safe to say that e-commerce site navigation aids constitute a really important product category.

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