Tools turn IM into a query service for businesses

Want to know how many sick days you have left this year? Why not send an instant message to your human resources database and find out?

That's one of the capabilities being promised by ActiveBuddy Inc., which on Monday released a software development kit (SDK) and server software that can be used by companies to create applications that run on top of instant messaging systems.

Using what the company refers to as interactive agents, or "bots," ActiveBuddy's software allows users to mine databases or Web sites and obtain answers to questions using messaging systems from AOL Time Warner Inc. (AOLTW), Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., as well as other text messaging software.

Developers use the BuddyScript SDK released Monday to write interactive agents that mine information from databases in a corporate network or on the Internet. End users at a company can then add a new contact, or "buddy," to their instant messaging software that makes use of those agents to retrieve answers to questions, company officials said.

For example, an employee could send an instant message that queries a customer relationship management system to find out which products a customer bought recently, or ask their human resources system how many days vacation they have left for the year, said Gray Norton, senior product manager for ActiveBuddy.

"The script is able to recognize a question, knows to connect to a company's back-end database, gets the relevant information, formats it for the messaging network, then sends a reply to the user," according to Norton. " All of this happens in a fraction of a second."

The BuddyScript SDK includes tools for editing, project management, debugging, and deployment of interactive agents. A server component, called BuddyScript Server Enterprise Edition, is used to run the system within an organization.

ActiveBuddy has released a handful of messaging bots on the Web for demonstration purposes. One of them, called SmarterChild, can be added to a user's contacts list and used to ask questions. Users query the computerized service to receive information such as movie listings, horoscopes, stock quotes and where to find online games.

SmarterChild was made available in June 2001 and originally worked with Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger and AOLTW's AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) service. The company recently discontinued support for AIM, saying it had attracted more than 8 million users, overloading its servers. The service is still available to MSN Messenger subscribers.

A few customers are testing the software for internal use, according to ActiveBuddy. They include a nonprofit research group, Mitre Corp., which provides research to the U.S. government, and Reuters Group PLC. Meanwhile, software vendor Digital Enterprise Systems Inc. used the software to build an online customer service application that it hopes to sell as a substitute for live customer service representatives.

The interactive agents developed with the tools can work with messaging systems from AOLTW, Microsoft and Yahoo, as well as with custom messaging systems. The tools can also be used to develop interactive agents in HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) that mine information from Web sites, the company said.

The SDK includes the BuddyScript Library, which provides code for common English phrases that users are expected to submit. The BuddyScript server software is used to deploy agents within a company or organization. For agents deployed on a wide scale to large numbers of users, ActiveBuddy will host the service on its own servers for a fee.

"The BuddyScript Server is not designed for deploying to millions of consumers, rather employees or small well-known groups," Norton said.

The BuddyScript SDK is available as a free download from ActiveBuddy's Web site, at Pricing for BuddyScript Server Enterprise Edition varies from US$15 per seat for up to 500 seats, to $0.50 per seat for more than 2,500 seats. Pricing for the hosted services varies greatly depending on size and complexity, the company said.

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