Despite the fact that Microsoft Corporation has spent years and millions of dollars developing its own natural language search tools such as SQL Server 7's English Query, the company announced over the weekend that it had secured a deal with Ask Jeeves Incorporate to provide plain-English search capabilities on its Web site. The deal brings technology from Ask Jeeves to Microsoft's customer service Web site so that users can type in simple questions about problems they're having with Windows and receive the most relevant answers possible.
"The service is being continually developed and fine-tuned," said Ask Jeeves President and Chief Executive Rob Wrubel. "Information on the most frequently asked questions is incredibly rich data that most corporations have no idea about."
To see the new technology at work, visit the Microsoft Personal Online Support Web site and click on the link in the upper left corner of the page, titled "Ask a Question about Windows 98." This brings you to a page where you can ask plain-English questions and see a scrolling list of the questions other people are asking at that moment, which is nicely done. You can also click on other people's questions to see the answers to those questions if desired.
I tested the service by asking some obvious questions. My first two questions, which were variations of the same query ("Can I upgrade to Windows 2000?" and "How do I upgrade to Windows 2000?") were apparently beyond the capabilities of the wizard, which responded, "Sorry, I do not understand or know the answer to your question" in each case. The third question, "How do I install a printer?" yielded a hopeful "I know the answer to this question" message and began a drill-down wizard. Figuring I had unfairly judged the thing, I tried a fourth question: "How do I install new fonts on my system?" This was answered incorrectly with a knowledge base article about installing and removing application programs.
Perhaps this is the type of thing that gets better over time, but I didn't come away particularly impressed with this tool