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Microsoft's latest pitch to business: Hey, we do swell search as well

The company's about to deploy an online support system based on natural search technology picked up during an earlier acquisition.

Over the years, Microsoft has taken different approaches to offering online support. Some of you may remember Microsoft Bob, a bizarre software desktop replacement whose personal guides were supposed to offer personalized help.

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the product went nowhere and is now better-known as the answer to the trivia question, "What was Melinda French's claim to product fame?" (Of course, Melinda French later went on to fame and fortune as Mrs. Melinda Gates.)

Most computer users are more familiar with the Clippy, the office assistant Microsoft put into Office 97 that offered advice to user queries. The feature was subsequently panned by Smithsonian magazine as "one of the worst software design blunders in the annals of computing."


But Microsoft is now about to take another stab by rolling out an updated natural language search tool it acquired when it bought Colloquis in 2006. The company this week is giving private demonstrations of Automated Service Agent, or ASA, a hosted online customer service technology, which makes its official debut next month.

Microsoft envisions ASA as a tool companies will deploy to help reduce costs associated with call centers or internal help desks. The way it would work, a user engages in a chat-type session asking questions in conversational English. The system then would tap into a knowledge base to find the most fitting answer.

"We see this as offering a lot of advantages over FAQs or keyword searches," said Clinton Dickey, director of Microsoft's Automated Service Agents. "When you have an FAQ, a customer still has to go through the a long list of possibilities to get the answer--if they get it at all. We see this as driving self-service on the Web where ASA can provide very particular answers. The beauty of ASA is that it can ask questions in natural ways and will link answers from a knowledge base that expands over time."

Among other things, Microsoft asserts that:

• ASA will offer direct answers to even the most technical questions.
• The service will be available 24/7.
• Microsoft's Knowledge Modules will include terms and phrases germane to different industry niches.
• ASAs can serve as a training tool for new employees or for retraining existing staff.

At this point--and for the foreseeable future--Dickey said Microsoft does not intend to use ASA's technology in a consumer search application. That's likely the smart move. Routine in-house questions that go unanswered waste time and money. Any technology provider that can reduce costs at call centers or other internal support centers will find no shortage of takers among the corporate set.