Startup promises 'portable portals'

Amidst the e-commerce and broadband hoopla, one Internet World exhibitor proffers a potentially interesting plug-in.

Internet World isn't all e-commerce innovators and broadband providers. Tucked away in the back of the exhibit hall is a little company with a good old-fashioned plug-in.

SideTalk hopes to transform people's browsing experience by providing them with what it calls a "portable portal." The free plug-in launches a companion surfing tool that runs along the left side of both the Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers.

SideTalk provides constantly updated links to sites and communities related to wherever the browser is currently pointed. It also offers personalisation features, like "My Notes," that allows users to highlight and save portions of sites that interest them, and a community section that enables co-browsing and public or private chats and discussion boards.

"There's a lot of community sites out there and an increasing number of little tools. SideTalk is the one thing that deserves a place in someone's browser," said Steven McGeady, chairman of SideTalk's board.

"It's the way browsers should have been built to begin with," added SideTalk's CEO Ilan Shamir.

If McGeady's name sounds familiar, it's because he was a prominent witness in the Microsoft/DoJ antitrust trial. McGeady's day job is serving as vice president and general manager of Intel Internet Technology Lab.

He first teamed up with Shamir while the two were working at MIT's Media Lab. They wanted to find a way to provide context while people were surfing the Web. McGeady compares the current surfing situation to visiting a deserted shopping mall.

"You can't tell who the people are that are out there with you," he explained. "You don't know who the related companies are or how to get to them. Basically, you don't know what's in your neighbourhood." Despite the rash of personalisation features dominating the Web's major portals, McGeady claims their major flaw is that you can't take those features with you while you surf.

"The big portals are communities in the same way destination resorts are communities. We want you to create your own neighbourhood and be able to carry it with you," he explained. The company currently has just four full-time employees. It is privately funded and plans to officially launch its product in early November.