Despite the millions of people on the Internet, visiting Web sites is a rather lonely activity. Users don't see, and seldom speak to, other shoppers, information seekers or sports fans.
Crowdburst (www.crowdburst.com) has other ideas. The San Francisco startup, whose founders include four refugees from Netscape Communications Corp., is the newest in a mob of young companies hoping to define the next-generation browsing experience. Where today's Web-surfers cruise alone, the new breed wants them to travel in groups.
"We want to turn the Web from a solitary experience to an interactive, dynamic community," says Nathan Tyler, Crowdburst's marketing director.
Crowdburst's service, which is about to be available in its first public test, combines familiar tools such as online chat and bulletin boards that pop up in a special window alongside a user's main browser program. It also adds a newer concept that it calls "trails." These are lists of Web sites that may be followed like stepping stones along with posted commentary or live chat from other users.
A person or a company might create a trail to illustrate a concept or turn fellow travelers on to information or shopping resources. Users could follow the trail when surfing on their own, or take part in a live surfing session in which one person leads others to a succession of sites. Users can type in a chat window to comment on the action.
Such collaboration concepts have been promoted from startups that include iKena Inc. (www.ikena.com); SideTalk (www.sidetalk.com); NovaWiz (www.novawiz.com), which operates a service called Odigo; and Hypernix Technologies Ltd. (www.Hypernix.com), which operates a service called Gooey. Several founders of these ventures come from Israel, where the instant messaging service called ICQ helped popularize the concept of downloadable software that acts as an Internet companion.
Crowdburst requires users to download relatively little programming code. Though it will encourage users to come to its own Web site, it expects to expand with help from companies that want to add chat and bulletin-board features that don't cost them anything. They can simply add a free link to Crowdburst.
"The really significant aspect of this is that it is probably the first technology of its kind that actually offers a compelling value proposition to the Web sites themselves," said Cary David, the company's chief executive.
Clicking on one of those links takes users to Crowdburst, which manages the service on its servers and connects users with others discussing that original site. Once they have received the software that way, they can search out other trails and group-browsing sessions.
Crowdburst plans to get revenue by persuading companies to buy advertising that appears in the companion window to the main browser view.
While much Web chatter is of little use, backers of group browsing see value when users can pick their companions. Two or more people, for example, might jump simultaneously to Web sites that let them view the same garment or furniture and discuss it online. Alternatively, a store could have guides on its site that could take people on live tours.
Navi Radjou, an analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., sees an advantage in Crowdburst's trails technology, which lets users follow a path through the Internet without anyone else being present. A company could impart information to new employees by letting them follow a string of Web pages. A history professor could create a trail for students to follow to libraries and museums, along with his running commentary.
David, 34 years old, has been thinking about such possibilities since he was an undergraduate student of computer science at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, and later as a consultant working for multinational companies in Japan. He came together last summer with the four former Netscapers -- Tyler, Lamarr Kelley, Jed Kleckner and Spencer Murray. In all, Crowdburst has 24 people crammed into a small office in a San Francisco neighborhood called North Beach that is best known for Italian restaurants and antiques.
David thinks they will have an unusual advertising business. Besides just offering data about how many times users visited Crowdburst, the company will anonymously collect data about the sequence of sites surfers visit. So advertisers will have data that suggest users' income or special interests. Amazon.com Inc. wouldn't get individual's names, for example, but it could ask Crowdburst to display an ad in the companion window every time a consumer cruises to barnesandnoble.com, David says.
For all of that, Crowdburst faces stiff competition from rivals that already are in the field, says Radjou of Forrester. Moreover, browser makers Microsoft Corp. and America Online, which now owns Netscape, could move into the group-browsing field. He believes both are already studying the concept, and could move to buy one of the startups. "That's the challenge for these guys," he says.