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A Personal Version of XML, Courtesy of Netomat

I want my XML .

As the adoption of extensible markup language (XML) spreads to corporate networks, helping computers speak to each other more efficiently over the Web, what about XML for humans?

After all, the financial world has its own dialect of XML, called XBRL (Extensible Business Reporting Language). Tech services vendors have all their flavors of XML as part of the language frameworks for a coming era of Web Services among corporate networks.

Microsoft has its .NET version of XML -- even the public relations industry is developing its own dialect, XPRL (extensible public relations language) -- all of which serve the same purpose: to help machines communicate data more effectively with other machines, with more meaning.

But where is the version of XML that lets people communicate more effectively with people?

Netomat, a start-up company about to make its public debut at PC Forum starting March 23rd -- Esther Dyson's annual confab of technology visionaries -- may have that answer.

Given the theme of this year's PC Forum, "data comes alive," the exploding growth of Web logs and their increasing role as media distribution systems, New York-based Netomat's multi-media authoring and messaging tool may have found the perfect time to introduce its product.

Indeed, the company, launched by a mix of artists, philosophers and early players in the growth of XML, could be on the verge of becoming -- dare we say it -- the "next big thing." If only because it's a creation that is not easily summed up.

"It's probably best described as a service," says Alan Gershenfeld, a founder and co-CEO of Netomat, which was founded in 2001.

"We make it easy to combine multimedia formats: text, images, voice sound, free form drawing, unlimited personal rich media," said Gershenfeld, a former executive of entertainment software company Activision.

And it's XML and Java based, which makes the multi-media authoring tool compatible with both PCs and Macs, with various browsers and various e-mail clients.

For a monthly subsciption fee, the Netomat user, consumer or corporate, gets a hosted authoring and messaging application, 30 megabytes of space on Netomat's servers, and the use of the company's communication infrastructure. It lets you manipulate text, images, video, audio -- any digital media -- and with the push of a button you can send the whole creation off in an e-mail, or in today's publishing parlance, update your blog.

Call it a blogging, publishing tool on steroids.

The user authors digital media in the Netomat client, then sends it to any messaging client -- Outlook, AOL, Eudora. The media assets are uploaded from space on Netomat's servers. All of the company's products, for consumers and enterprise users, are built on its patent-pending Netomat Communication Platform.

Because the data assets are live in a two-way channel, the user can continue to update and change the media assets, such as a photo of a child's first steps with a text overlay along with audio of his joyful cooing. It can be changed even after the assets have been sent to the recipient's e-mail inbox.

"We're breaking down the barriers a little bit between Web publishing and e-mail," says Gershenfeld. In a way, the product is actually another layer to the e-mail client, a live channel akin to an Instant Messaging session where the sender and recipient can effortlessly manipulate any digital files -- pictures, audio, video, even doodle on the same "virtual" page.

"What we do is marry the authoring of multiple media with messaging through multiple modes of communication," said Gershenfeld.

Maciej Wisniewski, Netomat's co-founder and chief scientist (who helped develop IBM's XML strategy when he was a programmer with Big Blue), says the XML and Java-based platform consists of a fully integrated family of authoring, server and player technologies designed to work seamlessly with existing formats and protocols. "The core innovation underlying the platform is a new XML-based language called netomatic mark-up language (NML)." They like to think of it as XML for people to people communications.

He says the company also plans to make its NML source code available to the open source community. "We believe in open standards, open formats, open protocols. And we want NML to be open. It's part of the philosophy of the company."

Communication for Social Change

After its public beta launches in April, the company eventually plans to make it fully extensible to the open source community, but only when it feels it can support the code fully, Gershenfeld says. "We believe it's most effective to stay in synch with the open source community so we don't develop incompatible NML formats."

In fact, Netomat's support of the open source movement is actually a condition of its venture backing. The company has raised about $5.7 million so far, some of which came from the Rockefeller Foundation's ProVenEx fund, which also expects a cultural return on investment as well as a return on capital. (The lead investor is Topspin Partners, with a significant investment from William Harris Investors.)

Venture capitalists supporting companies that make software that's eventually given away?

"A sense of responsibility is not incompatible with a return on capital," says Gershenfeld. "And technology is not neutral. When you create technology, and write code, you are making decisions about how people will see the world. Therefore there are values embedded in the technology. That's not good or bad. It just is. By creating a group of investors not just interested in return on capital, but the value of technology, it creates a check in the system."

Company officials concede that the ability to actually reach back into an e-mail that has already been received is bound to open a whole new argument about the concept of who actually owns the e-mail. Not to mention the shudders that the launch of an easy-to-use media manipulation tool will give the already-sleepless guardians of digital intellectual property.

"We spend a lot of time thinking through the implications, and what the impact of this will be on IP," says Gershenfeld. "When we started to think through the IP issues, we sought out people who have studied the implications" of a tool that can easily alter digital assets.

The search led Netomat to explore the approaches championed by Creative Commons, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the creative reuse of intellectual property.

"We're trying to think proactively to perhaps introduce new solutions into the copyright debate. I think we're going to introduce some new ideas about how we approach IP," Gershenfeld says.

"But it is new and we have to watch it closely," he says of the product. "It does introduce new social contracts. Just like e-mail did when it was created, just like the telephone did when it was invented. IM creates a new social contract. This will as well."