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.”

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