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Spelling and grammar mistakes go up in smoke – WhiteSmoke

Posted By Karin Kloosterman On May 21, 2006 @ 6:00 pm In | No Comments

The WhiteSmoke technology retrieves the diction and grammar and style that fits the required writing style. Want to write a novel like John Grisham, give a speech like Churchill, or just impress people in chat rooms with your writing skills?

Thanks to an Israeli software-developer, WhiteSmoke, you don’t have to go to Harvard to sound like you’ve studied there.

The company has developed an artificial intelligence tool that scans databases from news sites such as CNN and The New York Times, and studies documents from Harvard and Yale on an ongoing basis to learn how English sentences are used real-time in business, medicine and every-day life.

After downloading the software package (for $50 to $100), the user clicks the WhiteSmoke icon, and they are able to go beyond a run-of-the-mill spell check: whether they are writing an email, a blog post, or a business contract, WhiteSmoke retrieves the diction and grammar and style that fits their writing.

The program may cause worry among English schoolteachers, who have been heard complaining that WhiteSmoke users will become lazy with their language, but company founders think otherwise.

CTO and cofounder of WhiteSmoke, Liran Brenner, worked at the instant-messaging pioneer ICQ for 5 years. He knows how an introduction in an email can make or break a business deal.

“Today the common language of communication is English and people are communicating mainly by email,” Brenner told ISRAEL21c. “If you want someone interested in your idea, or get into a prestigious school, you are graded by your email. Today everything is based on email and it is very hard to fix a first impression.

“We teach a computer to construct sentences,” he adds.

Brenner’s wife who is also the CEO and cofounder of the company, Hilla Ovil-Brenner says, “We have a lot of downloads so far from accountants, lawyers, and students- nearly everybody. WhiteSmoke is being used by professionals and teenagers, by dyslexics, journalists and people in chats.”

If you want to sound like legal thriller author Grisham, no problem. Select the template and WhiteSmoke will show you how.

To date, WhiteSmoke has reached sales of about $100,000 a month, which is significant for a young start-up founded in 2002. A majority of customers are in the US, although the package is equally attractive to non-native speakers as well.

International corporate lawyer, Nir Geva may work in Tel Aviv, but when he is drafting contracts for companies working with Africa Israel Investments Ltd, one of the largest investment firms in the country, he has to sound as professional as possible. Beyond the basic errors in English, which are a must to avoid, Geva also needs to create the impression of influence and authority. He says using WhiteSmoke allows him to do that.

“WhiteSmoke really helps me to write top quality text in contracts and in client letters. When I have to sound powerful, it helps me convey that message, but also helps me do it in a polite way. I not only avoid mistakes but have richer writing,” says Geva.

The name of the company honors an ancient tradition in communication. White smoke has been used for centuries as a means for both Chinese peoples and Native American Indians to send signals. Not long ago, the traditional white smoke emitted from the Vatican to announce to the world that a new pope had been chosen.

The concept of the modern WhiteSmoke was hatched four years ago in South Africa when Ovil-Brenner was talking one night with her father, a heart surgeon, about the problems of communication among doctors.

“I said, lawyers don’t communicate too well either,” says Ovil-Brenner and then turned to her engineer husband with the idea of making software that could go beyond the limitations of the Microsoft Word package.

Brenner said it could be done.

Almost immediately, the two started rallying together linguists to help build the program. Shortly thereafter they moved to Tel Aviv for R&D because of the wealth of software developers in the country. They started operating an eight-person team out of their two-room apartment.

“When the guy came to bring the 9th computer into my apartment and said to me, ‘You are lucky you don’t live here?’ I realized I had to move,” says Ovil-Brenner who now occupies a second-floor office in North Tel Aviv.

Financially, WhiteSmoke has been supported by private donors and backed by ICQ cofounder Yair Goldfinger. They have 21 employees, linguists and engineers in Israel and about 10 employees in South Africa.

WhiteSmoke’s business development efforts have taken the company to early stage talks with ISPs, mobile companies and educational authorities.

“We look to WhiteSmoke as something that helps you write better. You as a writer, need to choose the final result and must have the raw material to work with,” says Ovil-Brenner.

WhiteSmoke can help people with their personal life as well. She explains, “We can help people write dating profiles. Dating can be difficult. This is a good service because gives you a tool to write nice words to describe yourself, beyond the obvious ones. Our tool helps you find other words too.”

Because the software relies on constant communication with WhiteSmoke’s server, Ovil-Brenner is not worried about software pirates. Anyway, she says, these days more and more people are feeling the obligation to pay for what they use on the internet.

“We’ve been selling nicely to Americans. I think they want to invest more in writing better because there is a big gap between verbal and written capabilities there. Besides Americans, there are millions of people around the world looking to improve their grammar. I can sit in this office in Tel Aviv and can sell to a man in Japan, because he is looking for me.”

What is the next step?

“We only started selling in October,” says Ovil-Brenner, “and are starting to develop WhiteSmoke in other languages. We hope to be on every PDA in the world and that one day before people send out an email, they will do a ‘WhiteSmoke check’.”


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