IBM Introduces Smart E-Mail Search Tool

December 27, 2007 0

IBM has created a free semantic e-mail search engine aimed at users of the company’s Lotus Notes software and Microsoft Outlook…

“IBM’s new OmniFind Personal E-Mail Search tool is designed to help heavy e-mail users sift through the glut of information residing in their in-boxes…”

IBM on Thursday unveiled powerful “smart” search software that helps people find information buried in the vast personal database that e-mail has by identifying the most relevant information in a search query and extrapolating what the user is trying to find.


IBM’s OmniFind Personal Email Search (IOPES) allows users to search their mail based on technology that intelligently works by matching a query against predefined concepts — such as persons, dates and phone numbers, addresses, meetings, presentations, documents, images or schedules — and relationships amongst these concepts, according to IBM.

“It also allows searchers to define their own concepts.”

Heavy e-mail users sometimes have trouble finding the needle of information they need in the haystacks of old missives lingering in their in-boxes. That is the sort of user IBM has targeted with its new OmniFind Personal E-Mail Search (IOPES) tool.

For example, it could help a user search for a person’s phone number even if the e-mail database does not contain the words “phone” and “number” in the search. IOPES also allows users to create, save and share personalized searches for future use.

Users can enter simple keyword-based queries or ones using basic natural language constructions. For example, to find e-mails from a friend named Mark Smith, you could simply enter “from Mark Smith.”

But to find only the e-mails Smith sent in a certain month, a query might be constructed as “Mark from January 2007.” You could find his phone number by typing “Smith’s phone number.”

The results do not show a list of e-mail headers or display the messages in full. Instead, the software extracts the passage it believes contains the right answer, and highlights what it deems to be the specific information requested, such as a phone number.

“Users can also search for attachments, with search results providing direct links to the documents in question.”

The new IBM OmniFind Personal Email Search (IOPES), which can be downloaded free of charge from: IBM alphaWorks (http://www.alphaworks.ibm.com/tech/emailsearch), is a semantic search tool aimed at bringing the search mechanisms made famous on the Web by Google Inc. to the desktop, said Douglass Wilson, distinguished engineer and chief technology officer of IBM’s Lotus Development Corp. unit.

“The software, though not initially positioned as a competitive product, is the latest innovation in an enterprise search market loaded with rivals Google, Microsoft, Fast Search & Transfer, and Autonomy.”

“One problem that many people have is they have tons of e-mail,” Wilson noted. “They are using e-mail as their file management or document management system on their desktop. Search technology that is adaptive to the context in which you are working is fundamental. There is a lot here [in IOPES] about using simple language constructs to help the search system identify the context in which you are asking a question.”

Available for Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook, this smart email search tool eliminates the frustration many of us feel when irrelevant search results are returned for a simple text or keyword search.

Additional search parameters such as meeting requests or specific locations also can be defined. Such user-defined concepts can be shared between individuals and used to build a more personalized search system.

“With gigabytes of e-mail storage readily available to nearly everyone, e-mail has evolved from a simple communication tool into a personal database where we retain vast amounts of valuable information,” said Wilson.

“We continue to deliver better tools to speed and improve personal mailbox search, and OmniFind Personal Email Search illustrates how IBM’s advanced technology delivers the ability to quickly and easily access the precise information we need, exactly when we need it.”

“Once the software is installed, it indexes and analyzes the user’s e-mail store. Searches are conducted through a browser interface that delivers results through a stripped-down, Google-like interface.”

E-mail is a good target for developing a semantic search engine because users frequently repeat certain phrasings and words and repeatedly exchange the same type of information. “There are fairly large numbers of things that are so e-mail specific,” said Shivakumar Vaithyanathan, the project’s technical lead.

Creating better search tools based on semantics has been a widely talked-about goal for online search engines. However, less work has been done in the areas of desktops, e-mail and other data searches, leaving users to struggle with keyword searches.

IOPES was created through a collaborative effort spanning IBM Research Labs in Almaden (California), Haifa (Israel) and Delhi (India). The software uses the Unstructured Information Management Architecture (UIMA), an open source software framework that helps organizations build new analysis technologies to realize more value from their unstructured information by discovering relationships, identifying patterns, and predicting outcomes.

“This is a good thing. It is good to see that someone is bringing this into the e-mail or desktop search category,” said Kenneth Poore, a Forrester Research analyst. “The industry in general has been kind of underserved by the keyword-based search tools that Microsoft has with their Windows Desktop Search, and of course Google has their desktop search.”

The problem with the current generation of desktop and e-mail searches is that they are “so literal and so keyword-based” that they are “not hitting the mark, and a lot of users are coming away a little disenchanted with the dearth of capability” in those products, Poore said in a statement.

“They want more of ‘do what I mean’ or ‘find what I want’ kind of searches rather than find exactly what I type in,” he continued. “IBM has done a lot of work with semantic analysis. Doing semantic search for e-mail really opens that up. Being able to go out and do more conceptual searching instead of literal searching adds a lot of value.”

The new IOPES is part of IBM’s AlphaWorks program, which makes technology fresh from IBM’s research labs, but not fully formed into final products, available to users.

AlphaWorks is an online community that gives the outside world a unique peek into the work underway in IBM’s R&D labs by highlighting the company’s most cutting-edge work and providing it at no cost. More than 90 of the Fortune 100 companies access alphaWorks technologies.

Vaiyanathan said IBM is offering IOPES for free to garner as much feedback as possible about the tool. He and IBM believe IOPES may evolve into a commercial enterprise search product that could, for example, help users search on intranets.

“Once we get feedback, what we can do with the fact that we are moving from keywords into context is boundless,” he said.

“IBM also released the tool internally to its employees and said it has received mostly positive responses.”

IBM will charge for this technology if it becomes a commercial product.