What better source for advice on computers than a computer? It plays no favorites, is consistently reasonable, and admirably thorough. There is one hitch, of course. For a computer to function like an expert, it needs very specialized software.
Enter Questware, a knowledge-based system, offered by Dynaquest Corp. in Downers Grove, Ill. The brainchild of Mike Smock and Skip Roberts, a former computer consultant, the system helps businesspeople select the hardware and software that is most appropriate to their needs. "What we have done," says cofounder Smock, "is automate our human expertise."
To use the system, a businessperson calls (800) 556-1500 (in Illinois,  968-8585, collect) and completes a 30-minute telephone interview about his or her company. From the response to the first question -- "What kind of business are you in?" -- the computer figures out the next. For example, if the customer is a wholesaler, Questware then asks about inventory control, finding out how many stockkeeping units the company has on hand, how frequently the inventory turns over during the year, and so on. (While the computer does the work, a human "adviser" is on the other end of the conversation to ensure that questions are properly understood.)
At the end of the session, the company's profile is sent to a mainframe computer. Working from a large knowledge base that contains rules about appropriate equipment, the computer determines specifications for that business. The customer then gets a report outlining suggested types of hardware and software, price ranges, and training and support requirements. The service costs $189.
Since its introduction in October 1983 Questware has attracted more than 2,000 queries. Customers range from people like Joel Rice, vice-president of Textile Industries Inc., in Belton S.C. who claims to "know probably as little about computers as anyone in the country," to Jerome Gottlieb, president of Gottlieb Properties Inc. in Downers Grove, who used Dynaquest primarily to help him better focus the questions he should ask salespeople.
Scott Findlow, president of Findlow & Sons Inc., a manufacturers' representative in Cincinnati, was on the verge of closing a deal for a computer system when he heard about Questware. As a first-time shopper, he says, "I was concerned. I didn't really feel I had anyone I could seek a second opinion from who didn't have an ax to grind." Dynaquest, he points out, was "not trying to sell me anything other than a report."
The results, he says, quieted his fears. The report confirmed his theories about size of hardware and features of software and gave him some new data, as well -- for instance, that the accounts receivable, sales analyses, and payables packages should all work together. The only "dark area" in the report, he says, was the fact that it didn't recommend a multitasking system, which he knew he needed.
By mid-January, says Smock, the knowledge base had been enlarged, and Questware now handles multiuser, as well as single-user, systems. In the second quarter of 1984, the system will recommend specific brands. And, by late 1984, the company plans to offer start-up and implementation plans, as well as problem-solving and diagnostic sessions via computer or the toll-free number.