The Next Tivo: Is It on Display at Demo 09?

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10 New Ways to Discover What You Need on the Web

As a search engine, nobody's been able to beat Google at finding Web pages relevant to your keywords. But Google isn't very personal--it doesn't know the social networks you're a part of, and it doesn't necessarily remember the particular subjects you're interested in.

A new breed of Web 2.0 services and applications launched at the DEMO 09 conference--an annual meeting promoting cutting-edge technologies--aims to bring that kind of personal knowledge to new search tools in the hope that such knowledge will help you find the exact information you're most interested in.

Some of the tools, like Ensembli and Primal Fusion, are Web services. Others, like Kutano and Evri, plug into your browser. Still others, like Sobees, are desktop applications.

Xmarks: The Wisdom of Bookmarks

One of the best ways to build a successful Web business is to give people a service they already need, then build on that base. That's the approach of Xmarks, which is created by the same people who make the Foxmarks bookmark synchronization add-on.

Foxmarks is actively being used on 3 million computers around the world, giving the service information on 600 million bookmarked pages. How useful is that information? My quick take is that it could be very useful.

The Xmarks Web site lets you enter another site's name, and shows you what other people think of it.
You can interact with Xmarks in two ways. If you go to the Xmarks site, you can enter a site name, and Xmarks will let you know what other people think of it. A rating scale tells you how often it's bookmarked, Xmarks users can review the site, and Xmarks will tell you about related sites.

You can also install the Xmarks browser add-on (if you already have Foxmarks installed, the update will be pushed out to you soon). When you search at Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft's Live Search, Xmarks will look at the results and offer additional information about the three links per page that have the highest score--a combination of how many people have bookmarked the site, plus its "bookmark velocity"--how quickly people are adding the site to their bookmarks. That information looks as if it could be pretty handy in finding the most useful sites in your list of search results.

The add-on also puts a small icon in the address box of your browser. Click the icon, and you see information for that page--its bookmark popularity and related sites.

Gazaro: Your Personal Shopper

A number of services already search the Web for good deals on your behalf. Gazaro looks like it could be a solid addition by offering not just deals, but an analysis of just how good those deals are.

Gazaro rates deals on a 1-10 scale.
Gazaro, which is free and open to all, analyzes the price history of a product and tells you whether the price a site is offering is a really good deal or not, based on how prices have been in the past. In other words, $1200 for a particular flat-screen TV may be the best deal you can get now, but it's not a very good deal if the same TV was $1000 a month ago. With that kind of information, you may decide to wait for the price to go down again.

Gazaro rates deals on a 1-10 scale, with a score of 8 or 9 meaning buy it now. The temptation for a site like this, of course, is to rate all the deals as great to push sales and reap more commissions. My very fast look at the site showed lots of ratings that were 5 or lower, though, so I hope we can depend on them to resist grade inflation.

Ensembli: News that Reads Your Mind

Sign up for an Ensembli account (it's free), and the service will ask you what you're interested in. Type in subjects like tennis, and it'll give you a list of recent news stories. The interesting part comes as you work with the site over time: It keeps track of what types of stories you read or starred and gives you more of those. It's supposed to eliminate the kinds of stories you've deleted. Eventually, according to the developers, Ensembli should figure out that you're mostly interested in tips on how to play tennis better rather than in reports of the latest results at pro tournaments.

An Ensembli results page for the search term "technology."
It's impossible to tell how well the system works without giving it more time, but the early search results seem slightly primitive: Typing in technology, for instance, only yields stories with the word technology in the headline, missing lots of stories that talk about technology, but don't happen to include it in the headline.

Primal Fusion: Are You Ready for Thought Networking?

Presenters at technology conferences love to coin new buzzwords--and Primal Fusion's contribution is "thought networking." What does it mean? Here's what I could piece together.

You go to Primal Fusion (the alpha service launched today) and it asks you what you're interested in. You give it a topic like Social Networking and it presents a tag cloud of semantically related concepts, things like reputation management or sharing. You choose from among those subconcepts the ones you're most interested in learning about and the sources of information you want to tap, like Wikipedia, Yahoo News, and Flickr.

You can then have Primal Fusion build a custom Web site with links to all the information it has found on the concepts you're interested in. Developers say they're working on functionality that will let you automatically create a document with the same information or an RSS feed.

Evri: Pop-ups That You Want?

Evri is a service aimed at finding content related to whatever content you're already reading. It powers features on sites like WashingtonPost.com that suggests other stories on the subject you're currently reading about.

Evri's results page for "MacBook."
You can also go to Evri's site and type in the name of a person, product, or thing you're interested in, and--if the noun is one that's in what seems to be a fairly limited database--Evri will show you a page with information sorted by type: a snippet of the Wikipedia entry in one corner, news stories in another section, and slider windows with related pictures and videos. You can also explore related concepts through an interesting visual interface.

When you load Evri's browser toolbar, it highlights terms on the page you're viewing with information from its database.
Not enough? You can have Evri everywhere you go by loading it's browser toolbar. It will highlight every term on the page you're viewing for which Evri has information. Hover over the word and Evri pops up a box with related news stories, connections, images and videos.

I haven't spent much time with the toolbar, but even with Evri's limited database, it feels like there's too much highlighting going on on the page. I'd stick to Evri's Web site instead.

How Simple: Simply Too Much

Have you ever wanted to have 35 browser windows open on your screen at once? Neither have I, which is why I wasn't overly impressed with How Simple.

The system aggregates results from a number of search engines and instead of just showing you a list of hyperlinks along with snippets of information from each link, it opens each of the sites so that you can look at as many as 35 of them at a time--live.

I haven't been able to play with this capability (the site is in private beta), but unless you have a really large display, lightning-fast connection, and very good eyes, How Simple may be Too Much Information.

Kutano: Comment Anywhere

It sometimes seems that the companies that most need to hear your gripes are the ones that don't have any system for commenting on their site. Kutano is a browser add-on that lets you comment anywhere, even if the site has no user forums.

Kutano's developers played up the idea that the company you're commenting on can't edit the posts, since they live in a small window to the side of the one you're looking at. But you can see comments by other Kutano users. And you don't have to limit your comments only to commercial sites. You can, as one Kutano rep pointed out, comment on your ex-boyfriend's Facebook page without him being able to do anything about the post.

So is Kutano the ultimate expression of free speech or a libel suit waiting to happen? It could be both, but unless the service can attract a critical mass of users, it may end up being more of a ghost town.

Jadoos: Controlling All Your Social Networks

Belonging to lots of social networks means managing lots of information, including logins and passwords, and keeping track of what you've posted where. A number of social network aggregators have popped up to try and solve those problems. Jadoos' approach is to create a browser widget that's modeled after a TV remote control. (The site is in a controlled beta.)

You click a button on the Jadoos widget, and it automatically opens up your Facebook or Twitter account. You don't have to remember the login information for the services. You can also see activity in multiple IM accounts at once, and a ratings app will pull up other people's ratings of the product or service you're looking at in your browser. (In that way, it's similar to Kutano, which also brings up comments by other users on the subject of whatever page you're viewing.)

Jadoos is an open platform that the developers hope other coders will use to create new applications. But at base, it's yet another widget platform, and since there are already so many, it may have trouble catching the fancy of third-party developers.

Sobees: Aggregation on Your Desktop

Like many of the other DEMO presenters, Sobees is designed to collect and categorize the Web-based information you're interested in. But Sobees does it in a desktop application instead of via a site or browser add-on.

Sobees is a social aggregation application for your desktop.
The app is designed in modules. You can add a panel with Facebook updates, another with tweets from the people you're following. You can also have a separate panel with information related to a specific topic you're interested in. That panel could include things like news stories, photos, and related tweets. But you can swap modules in and out depending on the mix of content you want to see.

You can also use the Sobees application to upload information to multiple services--for example,demo putting photos on both Flickr and Facebook at once.

7 Billion People: More Personalized Shopping

Unlike the other services and apps that I've mentioned here, 7 Billion People isn't anything you can go out and try on your own. Instead, it's a service that the company hopes e-commerce sites will use to make shopping a more personal experience.

The developers of 7 Billion People say they use linguistic and behavioral psychology to analyze what you do on the Web and to figure out from that analysis what kind of shopper you are.

Their demo showed the service running on top of Amazon.com (though they noted that Amazon is not a customer). One company exec went into the site and immediately drilled down to the specs of a camera he was looking for, ignoring all reviews by other customers and recommendations of other popular products. When he returned to the site, his experience was tailored to him--specs were front-and-center, while most information about reviews and recommendations by other shoppers was buried.

His colleague went to the same pages, but clicked first on user reviews and information like "Other people who looked at this product also looked at ...." When he went to an Amazon page for another product, the site immediately opened up the user reviews page, figuring he would probably be interested.

I'm always a little skeptical of artificial intelligence that's supposed to be as sophisticated as the kind 7 Billion People is using. But if they can get that analysis right, the service could actually make online shopping more efficient for everyone.

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