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Web site builds powerful storehouse of research
The Associated Press
SAN JOSE, Calif. — It's a lofty ambition — the Internet equivalent of the Public Broadcasting Service, a user-supported resource that pays top academics to create authoritative maps, articles and links to third-party content related to virtually any scholarly topic.
But the vast scope of the project hasn't stopped former high-flying Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Firmage from building Digital Universe, a commercial-free storehouse of information more than three years in the making.
A pilot version that debuted in January includes 50 or so portals, or entry points, on topics such as technology, the Earth and the solar system. Firmage says it will mushroom to at least 500 portals by next year and 10,000 by 2011.
Clicking on the Earth portal, for example, presents the visitor with links, vetted by experts for accuracy, to related articles, images, frequently asked questions and other resources from sites such as MSNBC.com, NASA and the University of Hawaii's department of geology and geophysics.
The Earth portal is also a jumping-off point to subportals on topics such as the atmosphere and hydrosphere, which in turn provide links to vetted content and further subportals. The approach is designed to give visitors a graphical means to find topics and understand how they are related to subjects in another category.
Little-known Digital Universe is trying to horn in on a crowded field, where sites such as Google and Wikipedia attract millions of visitors each month.
Firmage and his backers say Digital Universe's biggest asset is the trust readers will feel knowing that every link, graphic and article has been approved by an army of academics.
"When you type something like 'Arctic climate change' as a search term, or discover it through this navigation system, you're going to get the No. 1 link, the most highly evolved, most accurate, most comprehensive information resource for the Arctic climate change subject area," Firmage said.
Other portals included in the pilot are related to energy, national parks, nanotechnology and recycling. A 3-D graphical interface that adds more depth to the process will be available in April. For those who prefer a more traditional means of navigating the site, text searches are also possible.
The site has been under construction since 2002 by Scotts Valley, Calif.-based ManyOne Networks, a 56-employee company that has received about $10 million in financing from Firmage and angel investors. ManyOne Networks has been recruiting professors to become "stewards" of each portal and building offerings such as e-mail services to generate revenue.
Digital Universe seeks to improve on the ground broken by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows anyone to contribute and edit articles. Wikipedia's volunteer model boasts 1 million articles in English on everything from art deco to nuclear physics.
But Wikipedia's open system has also led to the publication of fraudulent articles, and authors sometimes have undisclosed conflicts of interest, critics have charged.
Instead of relying on anonymous volunteers, Digital Universe will pay experts, mostly academics, to write encyclopedia articles and to round up outside video, audio, online chats and other resources.
Firmage has pledged that access to basic content on Digital Universe will remain free forever and that it will never include ads. To fund the venture, the site will sell monthly subscriptions that let visitors get additional content and features, many of them offered by for-profit third parties.
"Imagine how many people would be interested in subscribing for $7.95 per month to get all those additional activities," Firmage said. He is confident the site will have at least 10 million paying subscribers within seven years. (At the end of February, Digital Universe had more than 10,000 subscribers.)
The monthly fee entitles subscribers to an e-mail service offered by Digital Universe; high-speed Internet access offered by third parties is also available for $40 and $50 per month, depending on the speed.
25 percent cut
Academics and others contributing content will get 25 percent of the proceeds, but the money isn't the only motivation for participating, said Peter Saundry, a physicist with the nonpartisan National Council for Science and the Environment. He heads the group responsible for Digital Universe's environmental portal.
"At every scientific meeting you ever go to on any subject, one thing you hear is the general public doesn't understand what we're doing," Saundry said. "This now is a tool for the scientific community to achieve that aspiration."
Not everyone is so sanguine about the prospects for success. Selling e-mail and Internet accounts are frequently unprofitable ventures. Plans to catalog the best content on the Web is an undertaking companies such as Yahoo! Inc. abandoned years ago. And other encyclopedias, online or otherwise, already solicit articles from experts.
Skeptics also say the Digital Universe site is too complex, lacking the simplicity found on successful sites such as Google.
"Something like this [Digital Universe] is a vision of the future that will probably come to pass, but it won't be implemented like this because their vision is too comprehensive," said John Perry Barlow, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and an acquaintance of Firmage. "They want to cover everything, which is generally a bad way to go."
Firmage, 35, founded his first company in 1989 and sold it four years later to software maker Novell for $20 million. He started USWeb, a Web site-development consulting company, in 1995, and over the next five years he led it on a major acquisition binge. It was worth more than $2 billion when he left.
He stepped down as CEO and chairman when investors grew uncomfortable with a treatise he had published claiming to have proof that the federal government had observed electromagnetic propulsion systems and other technologies developed by aliens.
Firmage said he stands by the treatise, which he titled "The Truth," even though he no longer posts it online.
Having demonstrated Digital Universe for three years, Firmage said he's heard plenty of skepticism about the venture.
"One of the reasons I feel very confident in the long-term viability of this entire effort is that, unlike all of the major information resource providers out there, this will be owned and governed," he said, "entirely by nonprofits."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company