Competitors conjoin

Two software makers with natural-language search technology have merged to form InQuira Inc. The new company ends the independence of onetime rivals Answerfriend and Electric Knowledge but continues their efforts to develop intuitive question-and-answer search technology for corporate Web sites.

Launched this week, InQuira is offering three applications based on Answerfriend and Electric Knowledge technologies: InQuira 5 for Self-Service, InQuira 5 for Search and InQuira 5 for Call Centers.

The natural-language format of the applications allows a company's customers to phrase support questions in everyday language, such as "How do I check my checking account balance online?" The software then analyzes the question, develops its interpretation of the perfect answer, and ranks the best available answers accordingly. Analytic tools allow companies to keep track of common queries and identify potential content gaps.

At the core of each application is InQuira's Natural Interaction Engine, which locates answers in unstructured data sources - including HTML, XML, PDF and traditional office documents - and from structured relational database management systems. The engine also stores vocabularies specific to vertical industries, such as financial services, technology and automotive.

The Natural Interaction Engine contains knowledge about synonyms, acronyms, word phrase relationships and language rules. For example, the software can determine that a question with the phrase "who is?" means a user seeks information about a person, while "how much is?" means a user seeks a price or quantity.

Part of the challenge of traditional search software is that it requires maintenance - such as manually metatagging new or revised content, or anticipating possible questions and then manually linking answers. InQuira claims that its software requires near-zero maintenance. No metatagging, no anticipating questions, no manually linking of answers. InQuira 5 can read and understand new content almost immediately, InQuira President Chuck Williams says.

For companies, the software can reduce the burden on their call center agents, Williams says. Customer BEA Systems Inc., for example, is deflecting 68,000 calls every month from its call center by directing users to its InQuira-powered AskBEA Web site for support, he says.

InQuira joins a relatively crowded field that includes competitors Applied Semantics, Jeeves Solutions, iPhrase Technologies Inc. and Primus Knowledge Solutions Inc. Answerfriend and Electric Knowledge had sought to compete independently, but both needed funding. The idea for merger came from venture capital firms Partech International and Walden International, which said their portions of InQuira's new $12.5 million funding were contingent on the companies joining forces.

The combined companies' customers include AT&T Corp., Bank of America Corp., BellSouth Corp., Fidelity Investments Inc., Honda Motor Co. Ltd., Sun Microsystems Inc., Sempra Energy and Network Appliance Inc..

InQuira 5 runs on Microsoft Windows NT/2000, Unix Solaris and Linux and is available immediately. Pricing starts at $150,000.

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