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  1. Technology
July 2, 1990


By CBR Staff Writer

Expert systems are esoteric devices, which you need programming skills and access to a whizzy workstation to use, and which are developed by tiny academic companies that may not survive the afternoon, let alone tomorrow. This statement is neither true nor entirely false, but it is a perception that the UK company Intelligent Environments Ltd, based in Richmond, Surrey, is keen to dispel. The company was set up in 1985 by Laurence Schafe, Terry Golesworthy and Roger Wilcocks, who all came from the Helix company best known for its Expert Edge product. From its conception, Intelligent Environments’ mission was to take artificial intelligence out of academia and into the commercial mainstream. This decision bucked the trend of the mid-to-late 1980s when the Artificial Intelligence community wanted the technology as its own – private from common or garden programmers.

Commercially driven

The first decision the company took was to put expert systems on personal computers, because this was the way that computing was developing in the business world at the time. Indeed, according to company director John Hargreaves, Intelligent Environments is so commercially driven that the cleverest things don’t go in to the Crystal product, only what the user wants and will generate revenue. Hargreaves says that this is the strength of the company and claims that Intelligent Environments is the only profitable expert systems company in the UK. The company began trading in late 1986 and in 1989 had reached a UKP2m turnover. In 1987 Intelligent set up a US operation with UKP1m venture capital. The US business was grown with caution, starting off in a hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts with a Toshiba laptop. The US side of the business is now overtaking that of the UK and has a larger growth potential. Hargreaves maintains that his company has done more than any other to turn the expert systems market round. Until 1988 artificial intelligence was the preserve of research groups, often funded within large blue chip companies, who were told to play around with the new technology. The business has now changed dramatically. Hargreaves says that a lot of feathers were ruffled at his company’s decision to turn its back on this community and offer a good general purpose personal computer product. –

By Katy Ring

He says that Intelligent ploughed a lone furrow in enabling a dBase user to build an expert system. In the old days Hargreaves believes that too many people went off and did things with expert systems without costing it out. This led to expensive white elephants and a market perception that expert systems were useless. Nowadays, the Crystal product is to be found lying alongside dBase in many an information centre and is supported in a conventional fashion with a helpline and consultancy. On the continent, Intelligent Environments deals with distributors, rather than setting up a direct operation itself. In particular it has done well with specialist variants of its product for dealing rooms which are distributed by IBM and ACT (nee Apricot). Hargreaves reckons that there are more than 6,000 developer’s copies of Crystal in the UK with another 100 or so licences in educational establishments. This is because 18 months ago it was decided that Intelligent Environments would take a long term investment in promoting Crystal as an educational product and would offer low cost, flexible site licensing for the education market. As Hargreaves points out, training people on BBC Micros is not training for the real world. In Essex, Crystal is even to be found in primary schools where its logical approach is said to be ideal for teaching eight-year-olds and up about computers. Such immature users can conceptualise expert systems far more easily than a spreadsheet or a database by following its if, then, and, or tree structure logic. Besides which, its a good deal more fun to write an expert system to pick the school football team than it is to work out the tuck shop’s budget on a spreadsheet. Hargreaves is full of such marketing strategies: his prid

e and joy is the Crystal Gold Scheme which enables software developers using the Crystal product to bring their finished expert systems to market. The Crystal Gold package with an up front fee of between UKP200 and UKP300 offers marketing consultancy support for a year. For this,clients get sales support databases, direct mail campaigns and marketing muscle. From Intelligent Environments’ point of view the package is good because it means that it can afford to `lough several man days into a client’s product – time and money that wasn’t covered by the Crystal software licence fee, nor by courtesy support for consultants.

Galloping ahead

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Surprisingly enough it was not tiny software houses that took up the package, so much as the information technology departments of large companies such as KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock and Royal Insurance. This is because such departments do not usually have sales and marketing support. On the training side, Intelligent Environments split the country into 10 regions and gave a franchise for each one. This means that it can focus on marketing consultancy. The Crystal Gold scheme has been running for about a year, having successfully outlived a six-month pilot phase. According to Hargreaves it is now galloping ahead, and all its participants are generating business, so that a network of third parties is rapidly being established with which Intelligent Environments’ sales force is co-operating. From the client’s point of view such a scheme is beneficial, since it means that whatever happens to Intelligent Environments, there is still an infrastructure there, with a user base and the Crystal Gold network. The company, however, appears to have an assured future – it owns the expert system which, it says, the top 30 companies in the UK have standardised on. It is not receptive to bids and says it would be quite expensive to take over. The one problem it does have is that it is carrying the weight of the market development for expert systems. Hargreaves commented, a little wistfully, that the market is so tender that it is still counter-productive to knock rivals.

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