A Universe of Good Intentions, A World of Practical Hurdles

A screen shot of the Digital Universe. The directory requires a special version of Mozilla, but updates are promised to make it work in other browsers.
A screen shot of the Digital Universe. The directory requires a special version of Mozilla, but updates are promised to make it work in other browsers.
By Leslie Walker
Thursday, January 19, 2006

One great thing about the Internet is how anyone can try to make it better.

A group of scientists, academics and nonprofit groups is making its attempt with a new Internet directory it calls the Digital Universe. The group's goal is to provide information vetted by experts on all major topics of human knowledge in a new format allowing people to browse it in a more visual way.

"We hope to create the world's largest repository of credible information over the next several years, if not decades,'' says Bernard Haisch, the astrophysicist and former NASA researcher who is president of the nonprofit Digital Universe Foundation.

Rarely do I write about projects that I think are likely to fail -- and this one seems to have the odds stacked against it, judging by my initial tests of its software. But the project is worth spotlighting because it shows how smart people keep trying to make the Web a friendlier place, in part by devising alternatives to search engines.

Released in pilot form Monday, this new directory ( http://www.digitaluniverse.net ) aims to collect the best of the Web in one spot. It differs from other search engines and directories in two key ways -- by rejecting advertising and by putting its content under the editorial control of a self-organizing network of experts.

Digital Universe also differs from text-based directories such as Yahoo by putting a visual overlay on top of its Web links. The solar-system home page, for example, starts with a 3-D picture of space as seen from inside a spaceship, then lets people click on a console to fly through a virtual solar system and explore the planets. Think of it as a visual Wikipedia (the open Web encyclopedia allowing anyone to add or change an entry) with tighter editorial controls and a special browser relying on graphics for navigation.

For now, anyone wanting to visit the Digital Universe must download and install a modified version of the open-source Mozilla browser (which also powers the Firefox browser). But the creators say they are retooling the directory so people will be able to access it from any Web browser.

The project's mastermind is Joseph Firmage, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who made millions founding two successful software companies (Serius Corp. and USWeb Corp.) during the dot-com boom era but drew public ridicule after he publicly professed his belief that extraterrestrials had visited Earth.

While he still believes in visitors from outer space, Firmage says those ideas are not a focus of his life today -- and have nothing to do with the Digital Universe project he's been working on for five years. He recruited a large team of reputable scientists and academics to flesh out what is basically a multimedia encyclopedia. He also devised a structure that requires him to be hands-off regarding its content.

"I am building the infrastructure for the Digital Universe, but the contributors of it are the scientists,'' Firmage said.

How Digital Universe hopes to fund itself without advertising or sponsorships seems questionable to me. The current plan calls for the owner, ManyOne Networks, to offer basic access to Digital Universe for free and sell a bundle of premium services for $7.95 a month. The bundle initially contains eight e-mail accounts; later it will add videos, radio programs, chat rooms and books. The company also is selling Internet access.

So far, the group has raised $10.5 million from foundations and private investors, Firmage said, including himself.

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