DOT COM FILE

 

Let's play Stump the On-Line Butler!

 

* WHEN Michael Ovitz, the Hollywood agent turned Hollywood manager, opened a new talent agency last year, he quickly signed Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Robin Williams as clients. Ovitz is planning to introduce his newest client at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, in the form of a twenty-foot-tall float: he is a pasty-looking cartoon figure, named Jeeves, who betrays no discernible personality. Jeeves is the mascot of Ask.com, an Internet search-engine Web site that lets you pose questions to Jeeves, who is sup­posed to help you find the answer. Ovitz hopes to use his formidable starmaking power to turn Jeeves into a brand name.

      Ted Briscoe, the senior vice-president and general manager of Ask.com, which is owned by an information ­retrieval company called Ask Jeeves, sees multiple advantages in the Ovitz connection. "Ovitz's background as a Hollywood superagent will allow Ask Jeeves to tap into his contacts and his insider knowledge of the entertain­ment industry," Briscoe told a reporter recently. The digital Jeeves, Briscoe contends, is no relation to Bertie Wooster's valet, the gentleman's gentleman and "fellow of infinite resource and sagacity" fa­miliar to readers of P. G. Wodehouse.

      Alexa McCann, an Ask.com publi­cist, says, "You can type in a question as if you were asking a friend, and our natural-language technology figures out what you're asking. Then Jeeves will take you to a specific page."

      Not exactly. When you ask a ques­tion of Jeeves, you aren't taken anywhere. Instead, several jazz riffs on your question appear on the screen, and you are asked to click on the one that most closely resembles your original query. Then you are referred to an appropriate Web site for an answer. Jeeves's refor­mulations may retain the sense of your question, or they may be wildly off base. The Web site wants users to feel that they are talking to a polite, knowledge­able valet, but it's more like talking to a roomful of valets who have been drinking heavily.

      We decided to test-drive Ask Jeeves by asking the valet some questions about himself.

 

   Q: Do you agree that Ovitz's background as a Hollywood superagent will allow you to tap into his insider knowledge of the enter­tainment industry?

   Ask Jeeves: Where can I learn about the home-improvement subject framing: inte­rior details?

 

   Q: Are you excited to meet Robin Williams and Cameron Diaz?

   AskJeeves: Where can I find personal ads?

 

   Q: How does Jeeves feel about merchandising, animation, and placement in movies and television shows?

   Ask Jeeves: Where can I buy TVs on line?

 

   Q: Will you appear in a movie some day?

   Ask Jeeves: What day is it?

 

   Q: How tall is Jeffrey Katzenberg?

   Ask Jeeves: Where can I find a concise encyclopedia article on altitude?

 

     In order to test Ask Jeeves's con­tention that the Internet butler is not based on Bertie Wooster's valet, we took some dialogue from Wodehouse and tried it out on the Web site:

 

   Bertie Wooster: What is it Shakespeare calls sleep?

   Wodehouse Jeeves: Tired Nature's sweet restorer, sir.

   Ask Jeeves: Where can I learn about brain mechanisms of sleep?

 

   Bertie Wooster: What do ties matter, Jeeves, at a time like this?

   Wodehouse Jeeves: There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter.

   Ask Jeeves: Where can I buy accessories (general) on line?

 

   Bertie Wooster: What do you suppose has happened, Jeeves?

   Wodehouse Jeeves: It is difficult to hazard a conjecture, sir.

   Ask Jeeves: What if I use Ask Jeeves and still can't find an answer?

 

  -ANDY AARON