Software That Will This Sentence Fix
Perhaps this is a familiar situation. Your spoken English is good—heck, you use it every day at the office. But it's not your native tongue, and every time you have to write an important e-mail or business letter in English, you worry that you might make an embarrassing mistake. Worse, a serious misuse could alter the meaning of your prose, potentially invalidating a contract or harming a business relationship.
Help is on the way. An Israeli software company called WhiteSmoke has devised a software tool that uses artificial intelligence to scan written English text and suggest ways to make it stronger, clearer, and more fluent. Far more than just a spelling and grammar checker, like the ones built into Microsoft (MSFT) Word, WhiteSmoke performs a black art known as "text enrichment."
In effect, the software parses your documents—including e-mails, letters, and even legal contracts—against a vast database of commonly accepted usage patterns to ensure that the writing is as good as possible. "English is the lingua franca of globalization, and our vision is to give everyone a level playing field in making a good first impression," says Hilla Ovil-Brenner, the 32-year-old chief executive and co-founder of WhiteSmoke.
There's apparently plenty of demand for that. Privately-held WhiteSmoke won't reveal details of its financial results, but says that it booked revenues of "several million" dollars in 2006, the first year the software went on sale. It expects to double that in 2007. Surprisingly, WhiteSmoke's No. 1 market is the U.S., which accounts for more than half of revenues. Now the company is launching an aggressive effort to penetrate China and India, where demand for English text enrichment could be even higher.
Better Writing Through Technology
Indeed, it was globalization and the predominance of English on the Web that prompted the idea for WhiteSmoke. (The name derives from the Native American practice of communicating via smoke signals.) Ovil-Brenner, who was born in Israel and raised in South Africa, says her father, a heart surgeon, complained to her a few years ago about the poor quality of the English in e-mails he received from foreign colleagues. Ovil-Brenner decided to tackle the problem with her husband, Liran Brenner, a computer engineer who worked for five years at Israeli instant-messaging software pioneer ICQ.
Working out of a second-floor Tel Aviv apartment converted into an office, they spent two years consulting with linguistic experts and teachers from the English-speaking world. What they developed was a technology that reads, classifies, and stores millions of English-language documents, ranging from government archives to newspapers like The New York Times and The Times of London. "The trick was devising algorithms capable of scanning through the masses of text to analyze syntax and then feed it into our database," says Brenner, who serves as the company's chief technical officer.
This vast repository of real-world examples provides the template against which writing samples are compared. When users ask WhiteSmoke to analyze a letter or e-mail they have written, they're provided with precise suggestions for improvement based on relevant content and context. The company has patented its concept of language enrichment, as well as its sophisticated text-comprehension engine.
Early Adopters Impressed
"WhiteSmoke's solution differs from existing ones that process on a word-by-word basis because the software actually understands and interprets the meaning of a text," says Yair Goldfinger, the 36-year-old co-developer of ICQ, who has invested an undisclosed amount in WhiteSmoke. (ICQ was acquired by AOL (TWX) almost a decade ago for $400 million.) WhiteSmoke won't reveal the names of its other U.S. and Israeli investors nor the amount it has raised. The company's staff now numbers 25, including a full-time linguist.
Users are enthusiastic. Tel Aviv corporate lawyer Nir Geva, for instance, spends much of his time behind his computer drawing up complex legal documents in English. Though his English is good he is not a native speaker. Yet he needs to sound authoritative and as professional as possible. Before he began using an early version of WhiteSmoke a year and a half ago, Geva says he spent hours on each document consulting the dictionary and thesaurus and proofreading his copy. "Now, in just one click the software does all the necessary checking, and more importantly, it improves the quality of my legal writing," Geva says.
Other early adopters came from elsewhere in the Israeli legal and high-tech community, where English is often the preferred language of communication. "With e-mailing crucial to my consulting business, the software has given me a lot more confidence with my English writing," says Vered Farber, CEO of Japan Knowledge, a Tel Aviv-based consulting firm for local companies looking to penetrate the Japanese market. Farber was so impressed with the software that she is working on a distribution deal for the Japanese market.
Aiming for Asian Markets
Perhaps the biggest surprise to WhiteSmoke's founders was their success in the U.S. Ovil-Brenner attributes it, in part, to Internet advertising on sites like Google (GOOG) and Yahoo! (YHOO) and to easy downloads of the software, which costs $79 for a basic package and $250 for an "executive" version with specialized language modules for medical, legal, and creative writing. But she also says there's an increased focus in the U.S. on good writing skills—which could be a polite way of saying that Americans lack confidence in their ability to communicate and use WhiteSmoke as a quality check. Versions of the software are available that support both American and British English.
Now WhiteSmoke is turning its sights to the huge—and mostly non-native-English-speaking—markets of China and India. Ovil-Brenner says the company is studying several possible business models and will likely sell through distributors, given that software markets in both countries are still immature. WhiteSmoke will focus its marketing on the business sector, owing to the relatively high cost of the product. At the same time the company is beefing up its efforts in Europe and is negotiating a deal with AOL to offer a simplified version of the software program on ICQ. The latter could improve the quality of communication among global users of instant messaging.
The Internet is steadily becoming less Anglocentric, but English is likely to remain the dominant online and business language for the foreseeable future. To that end, Ovil-Brenner's vision is to see WhiteSmoke help billions of people understand each other better. So far, she's off to a fast start.