TheBrain Devises a Smarter Interface

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Like teen-agers, software companies often strive to prove they are different. But unlike teens (at least the ones in my household), software companies are for-profit enterprises. This means that being different is not enough - they must be different in ways that are valued by potential customers.


BrainEKP (TheBrain Technologies Corp., 310/656-8484, www.thebrain.com) offers a clear difference: a unique user interface for accessing large amounts of data. TheBrain's focus is on unstructured data, such as sets of text documents, though it also can work with structured data such as database records. Conventional user interfaces access such data either through a search engine, where a user asks a question or enters a list of search terms, or through a hierarchical tree like the familiar Windows file folders.


But BrainEKP presents the information in a visual network, where one item may be connected to many parents, children and peers. The current active item appears at the center of the screen, with related items surrounding it. When the user clicks on a related item, it moves to the center and is in turn surrounded by its own set of related items. TheBrain's own Web site, www.thebrain.com, demonstrates this nicely.


This approach is highly intuitive - all you do is click on the next item of interest - and it clearly displays the context of the information being viewed. And because the system supports network rather than only hierarchical relationships, an item may be approached in different ways. For example, users could have a choice of viewing a list of employees by location, job function, division, salary level or other attribute.


BrainEKP delivers features beyond basic navigation. The bottom part of each screen can display details for the current active item, such as a Web page, document text or database record. The screen shows a list of previously selected items so users can easily see where they've been and backtrack if necessary. It also can show a fixed list of commonly used items independent of the current selection. The items themselves can belong to categories, represented by on-screen icons, so the user can see at a glance whether an item is a person, document, Web page, product, contact history or other type of information.


These categories are set up by the system administrator and can have different attributes appropriate to their nature. Individual items can be assigned owners, access rights and rules that trigger actions within or outside BrainEKP when the item is selected or modified. Users also can attach notes to items, link items in a sequence or send messages about items to other users.


Even placement on the screen is significant: Parent items appear above the active items, child items appear below, siblings to the left and connected items to the right. Lines show how items relate to each other - for example, siblings are connected to their common parent, rather than directly.


In short, the interface is immediately comprehensible to an untrained user, yet it can convey a great deal more information to an experienced user.


Though this depth of capability is impressive, it poses a marketing challenge. BrainEKP clearly differs from other unstructured data management systems like Autonomy (reviewed here last month). But is it a difference with value?


One feature BrainEKP does not inherently provide is automated categorization. Though users have the option to integrate text indexing and search technology from Convera, the default approach is to manually place each item within the network. This lets users specify connections and item attributes with greater precision than an automated system. But it also requires more labor than is practical for very large knowledge bases. (The system can automatically connect to relational databases and other structured sources, but it simply reproduces the hierarchy of the original data source.) So, even though EKP stands for Enterprise Knowledge Platform, BrainEKP does not really compete with conventional knowledge management systems for the largest implementations.


Instead, the system offers value to users who can benefit from its highly efficient interface or its sophisticated data management. The advantage of the user interface is obvious in applications such as call centers, where faster and more accurate information retrieval directly reduces costs and improves customer satisfaction.


The gain from better data management is more subtle. Like other knowledge management systems, BrainEKP stores pointers to items maintained in external data stores, rather than keeping copies of the items themselves. This simplifies maintenance, reduces cost and lets the systems combine information from otherwise incompatible sources.


But while most knowledge management systems store only key words or category tags for each item, BrainEKP stores the additional attributes needed to specify relationships, identify item types, define owners, set access rights, execute business rules and perform other functions.


This added information, combined with integrated collaboration features, lets the system move beyond data access to applications including e-mail discussion boards, automatic alerts for new items and project management with shared workspaces and standard item templates. Though specialized software probably provides more sophisticated versions of these applications, having them within BrainEKP offers easier access and closer integration with relevant data. In some situations, this difference will offer enough value to justify buying the product.


BrainEKP runs on Windows NT/2000 servers and uses SQL Server or Oracle for its internal database. It can connect to any SQL-compliant database and other sources including Web pages, Word documents and Microsoft Project plans. The system is written in Java and provides Java and JavaScript APIs to integrate with external systems. Users can run any Web browser with a Java Virtual Machine.


The system was introduced in late 2001 and now has 20 to 30 enterprise installations. Pricing begins at $50,000 for 25 users, with additional charges if needed for database connectors, a search server, installation, training and support. The basic Brain interface was introduced in 1998 as a tool for PC users to organize their local files. More than 500,000 users have downloaded the personal product, which sells for $79.95.


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