BACKGROUND: Based in Mountain View, California, Xora Inc. is a Web and wireless data applications company. The company's flagship product, PlainSpeak, lets users rapidly build query and transaction applications on Web and wireless devices. A powerful combination of features, such as stored procedure execution, document retrieval and a natural language, plain English interface for database queries, makes PlainSpeak ideal for business intelligence, B2B supply chain execution and vertical application deployment such as mobile dispatch applications.
PLATFORMS: PlainSpeak, a pure Java application, runs on Windows and UNIX platforms. The English-SQL translation technology provided by EasyAsk runs on Windows platforms. Minimum requirements on both NT and UNIX are 256MG RAM on a 500 MHz processor.
PROBLEM SOLVED: In the last few years, corporations have realized the importance of enterprise information systems. The growth of these applications increased the amount of digital data and information that is available in these organizations. Though the accumulation of information has been enabled with these implementations, access to the data is not easy. Cross-enterprise access to information has been difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish. Although a number of complex tools are available for querying information from databases, the post-training usage abandonment rate among users is as high as 70 percent, and the dependency on super users (users who are intimately familiar with the application) continues. PlainSpeak is a simple, secure, Web and wireless query and transaction interface to database information supplied by Xora. PlainSpeak uses the EasyAsk technology to enable users to interact with database information using common English words (e.g., What were the sales last week by product line?). Predefined queries can be extended in multiple dimensions, as in: What were the sales last month by product line and sales rep? The plain English interface allows end users to do most of their reporting on their own without taxing their IT professionals. In addition to inquiries, PlainSpeak allows users to perform transactions (entering invoices), retrieve documents (engineering drawings) and generate documents (packing slips). EasyAsk helps PlainSpeak enable employees at all levels to query data using a simple English interaction.
PRODUCT FUNCTIONALITY: PlainSpeak uses EasyAsk's application programming interface (API) to generate database-specific dialects of SQL based on plain English questions. The APIs that are available provide interactions such as echoing the users' questions and implementing clarification dialogs if ambiguous terms are used. In terms of additional functionality, it would be useful for EasyAsk to continuously refine the capability of the software to convert English to SQL to handle truly random ad hoc queries.
STRENGTHS: The main strength of EasyAsk is that site-
content-specific translation dictionaries (which interpret the English question and produce the SQL) can be rapidly built using a graphical, intuitive data modeling tool. In addition, EasyAsk comes with a root dictionary which already has definitions for common English words, especially those relating to time-based calculations.
WEAKNESSES: The objective of translating freeform English to SQL is a challenging one. Currently the translation software from EasyAsk does not handle truly random ad hoc questions within PlainSpeak. Our implementation has focused more on providing greater usability through the use of predefined questions and controlled extensions to those questions.
SELECTION CRITERIA: We surveyed the marketplace for English-SQL translation software and found that EasyAsk had a usable solution for rapid deployment of natural language interfaces for database information. In particular, the speed of translating English questions to SQL and the published APIs were of particular import.
DELIVERABLES: The PlainSpeak application, as implemented at Xora's Fortune 1000 clients, uses translation dictionaries to English-enable Oracle applications. Logistics, sales
and marketing, manufacturing, CRM, advanced planning and scheduling, engineering and supply chain dictionaries have been implemented.
VENDOR SUPPORT: EasyAsk support has been excellent. Translation tuning/advice and problem resolution have been outstanding. EasyAsk was prepared to help with evaluations and trial implementations.
DOCUMENTATION: Written documentation and online help are quite robust. More explanations on nuances in building dictionaries would be useful.
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