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Cursors face defining moments on the Web

Comet Systems inks a series of deals that will allow customers to access dictionary definitions and encyclopedia listings from anywhere on the Web with the click of a mouse.

A creator of custom screen cursors is giving its software a shot of intelligence Monday with a series of deals that will let customers tap into dictionary definitions and encyclopedia listings from anywhere on the Web with the click of a mouse.

The company, Comet Systems, is best known for creating tools that turn the familiar arrow cursor into cartoons and logos. Now it is taking its technology a step further, offering cursor information tools in partnership with Britannica.com, Houghton Mifflin, Rolling Stone and others.

By pointing and clicking on any word on a Web page, surfers using the tool can pull up definitions from "American Heritage Dictionary" or "Encyclopedia Britannica." Click on a favorite band, and the so-called Smart Cursors will list biographies, news links and a discography from RollingStone.com.

The company says other partnerships are on the horizon that could deliver shopping cursors and other shortcuts targeting niche markets.

Several companies have pioneered similar technology, which partly aims to change the way people get information on the Web. Consumers are accustomed to searching for information via major portals such as Yahoo and America Online. Cursor technology brings that data directly to them without their having to exit the Web page they're visiting.

But such services also have raised privacy concerns for some Net surfers. Nearly a year ago, Comet came under fire from a well-known privacy advocate, who alleged the company was attaching a unique identifier to each customer's system to track that person's whereabouts online.

Comet said that the numbers are used only to monitor impressions, or pages, that are viewed at partner Web sites and are not connected to personal information or surfing habits. In response to privacy concerns, the company lets consumers "zero out," or given an unknown value to, the number assigned to the software.

The introduction of such products in the last couple of years illuminates a trend in software development that plots to break the hold of the World Wide Web as the Internet's de facto interface, foreshadowing the emergence of life beyond HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and hyperlinks.

"Consumers are trying to find new and better ways to search the Web," said Jupiter Research analyst Lydia Loizides, pointing to the specialized search engines such as mySimon as evidence. "Technology such as this isn't a barrier for consumers if it's a good experience."

mySimon is a subsidiary of CNET Networks, publisher of News.com.

Technology from companies including Comet, NBCi's QuickClick (formerly Flyswat), Tribal Voice, Nano, Octopus and Atomica seeks to make the information-gathering process online more fluid, timely and efficient.

"People are often overwhelmed by the mass of links to places when they look for something--it's too much information," said Atomica founder Bob Rosenschein. "We've built a system to give you rapid answers more effectively."

Although such technology has been attractive to consumers--Comet boasts its software has been downloaded 61 million times--companies giving away the software have yet to see profits.

QuickClick, which was launched at the end of 2000 from technology acquired by NBCi midyear, gives its product away to NBCi visitors. The company said QuickClick is not a money-making venture; instead, it's a "strong differentiator in the marketplace" because it helps expand the company's search capabilities, an NBCi representative said. The service lets people click on any word throughout the Web to view a pop-up menu of related links.

Atomica.com, formerly Gurunet, changed focus from the consumer to the enterprise market in November after the company failed to see any significant revenue opportunities.

"We never made money," said Rosenschein, who said the market's biggest hurdles are consumer expectations.

Most consumers "don't want to pay for software, they expect it for free," Rosenschein said. "Where do you make your money? You sell advertising if you have enough users. But what people have discovered in a painful way is that ad revenues have dropped considerably."

What Comet plans to do differently is to become a traffic broker, referring precious eyeballs to partner sites. For example, a Web surfer might use Comet's smart cursor to get information about a company and be served a link to a Web site with relevant data, such as SmartMoney.com. Comet could receive a commission for each successful referral.

Ben Austin, a spokesman for New York-based Comet, said even at a few cents per click, the business model is attractive.

"If you're making 3 cents a click...and you have 5 million people clicking once a week, that's about 20 million clicks per month, or $600,000 a month," he said.

The company has already signed on such partners as RollingStone.com and Britannica.com. The product, which will only be available to Microsoft Internet Explorer initially, is available via Comet's site and Britannica.com.

QuickClicks and Smart Cursors help companies build communities of like-minded individuals on the Net, analysts say. They can also be used to develop highly personalized information services. For example, a company such as Amazon.com can tailor the technology to provide specific information on the company to its employees. NBCi launched a service called Booster Packs that aims to let companies personalize the software in this way. Atomica is also banking on the popularity of such a service.

"The ability to provide private-label services is ripe with possibilities," said Jupiter's Loizides, who envisions travel companies or retailers building affinity services. "They're important services in terms of building community on the Web.

"It's not the cursors that they have today, it's the ability to develop the cursors of tomorrow," she said.