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Net efficiency tools flooding market

A start-up called eCode, which offers personal profiling tools, will launch a new product next week, but the company has its work cut out for it as the hot niche draws competitors like Novell and Microsoft.

eCode, one of the first companies to market with a personal profiling tool, is looking to build on its lead with a new product launch next week.

On Monday the company will launch a tool that it likens to a Swiss Army knife to help users navigate the Web. The browser add-on, called the iBar, has tabs for a wide range of Web applications and utilities, including an address book, a portable bookmarks file, and automatic site login and forms-completion capabilities.

Although iBar's official debut is next week, the application is an extension of eCode's year-old system for creating personal profiles that users can tote around with them from site to site, filling in Web forms for purchases and registrations with just a few clicks of a mouse.

The eCode system also lets users establish their own identifying Web page at "username.ecode.com," where their contact and other information is stored and where they can alter data so it automatically gets updated in other users' records.

Even with a fresh product, however, eCode has its work cut out for it. Although first-to-market still carries some cachet, start-ups like eCode may find it hard to maintain an early market lead, particularly when a hot niche draws giant competitors, such as Novell and Microsoft.

For example, Novell launched a product called Digitalme last month. Based on Novell's Directory Services technology, Digitalme lets users create a profile with passwords, usernames, account numbers, bookmarks, and site preferences, in addition to a "MeCard" that lets them tailor the information in their digital identities and exchange information with others.

eCode chief executive Rohit Chandra acknowledged that competitors are proliferating just as his business is getting off the ground, but he predicted that his early start will give the company an edge.

"We were first in this space and we have the biggest traction," Chandra said. "It's a similar idea that Digitalme is picking up on, and it's good that they're picking up on it. It's a space we're carving out, and it's been gaining momentum."

Other offerings that provide so-called e-wallets for automatically filling in forms on commerce sites include Microsoft Passport, EntryPoint (the combination of PointCast's news and information delivery service and eWallet's shopping functions), Lucent Technologies' ProxyMate, and Qpass.

eCode's early start has gained it 100,000 users in 130 countries, Chandra said. The privately funded firm is approaching investment banks about an initial public offering.

Offerings like eCode and its many competitors have raised the hackles of some privacy advocates concerned about the aggregation and use of users' personal information. Chandra said that eCode gives users control over how their information is used.

"The issue of privacy is one that we take very, very seriously," he said. "The user retains privacy control, and their information is kept private."

Chandra said eCode in the next few weeks will add a new level of security that will require Web surfers to get permission before accessing eCode users' contact information home pages.

To make money, eCode will follow the lead of Web portals in charging commerce and content firms for leads generated from the iBar. The download, about 40K, is free to users.

eCode is slated to release another related product, aimed at the business-to-business market, in the next three weeks, Chandra said. He would not describe it further.

Chandra, a native of New Dehli, worked as an engineer for Informix and Hewlett-Packard before starting his own information technology consulting business and then, in 1997, founding eCode.