When they first emerged in the early-1990s, so-called ‘intelligent software agents’ were going to be the unseen slaves of users. They would go out onto the network – the internet, intranet or some corporation network – and gather information or carry out a user-defined transaction without intervention everything from fetching obscure Star Trek trivia from the web to booking airline tickets. Since then, the suppliers making use of agent technology have been mostly in the systems management sector, where remote agents send details of faults back to central consoles. However, there is one noticeable exception: ‘the pioneer of self-service solutions’, Edify. By using the properties of agents to locate and collate data from a variety of sources, Edify’ software enables customers and end users to effectively ‘serve themselves’ from complex information systems. Edify’s secret is Electronic Workforce (EW), an application development system that lets companies design and deploy self-service applications through a variety of media, including web browsers, telephones, fax and email. Using EW, users can safely carry out their own transactions – tasks such as buying goods, checking and changing personnel records, or updating account details. That allows companies to set up a link between themselves and customers which overcomes the interface and security problems which often occur when non-technical users are given direct access to a company’s system.
The customer gets a fast, easy-to-use navigation tool to find what they want. The business gets a more efficient, automated service which it can adjust at will. On the back of that, Edify’s growth has been impressive: Revenues for last year were $33m, up 106% on 1995. And the trend has continued into this year, with revenues for the second quarter at $13.5m, up 96% on the same quarter in 1996. That kind of momentum was recognized when, in September, Edify was named one of the Silicon Valley ‘Fast 50’, an annual award given by Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network and Deloitte & Touche to high technology companies with the highest percentage revenue growth measured over a five-year period. Edify’s claim to the leadership role in the self-service software niche is difficult to contest. During its five year life, it has licensed its Electronic Workforce software to over 650 customers, including SAP, Unisys, NCR, Intuit and banks such as First American National and Harris Trust & Savings. But such success has led others to try to colonize the territory. Suppliers of database and applications software, among others, have been trying to emulate the most obvious aspect of Edify’s armory by tacking a web browser interface onto the front end of their products. What they have failed to recognize with such web-enablement, claims Edify chief executive Jeff Crowe, is that the EW is more than a front door: its development environment teaches agents how to interact with the peculiarities of each system it is used with. In short, Edify’s agents are house trained.
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