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"Tree browser" maps Web sites

The "hyperbolic tree browser" hopes to provide a bird's-eye view of the Net. Will visual maps ever replace point-and-click for end users?

If birds could fly across the Internet, they might roost in something called a hyperbolic tree.

A bird's-eye view of the Net is what a spin-off company from Xerox called InXight hopes to provide with its "hyperbolic tree browser." The technology translates dense thickets of Web pages into easy-to-navigate visual maps.

InXight's technology is part of a wave of products from companies such NetCarta, Microsoft, and Apple Computer that are attempting to bring order to an increasingly chaotic Web by giving users a graphical overview of all the Web pages and hyperlinks on a site. The product trend suggests that the growing complexity of Web sites is making them difficult to navigate and even more difficult to manage.

The hyperbolic tree browser from InXight is one of the more promising technologies for mapping Web sites, according to companies that are employing it. The technology's clunky name refers to the underlying mathematical operations that the browser uses to visually display relationships between data.

The browser renders Web sites as a constellation of labels, representing the titles of Web pages interconnected by lines. For example, Xerox's Web site is displayed as a kind of solar system, with the home page at the center of the screen and the page links spiraling out from it.

"What we're trying to do is replace WIMP--Windows icons mouse point-and-click," said Barry Engel, product marketing director for InXight. "We're replacing it with other user interface components that can handle 10 to 100 times the data."

The hyperbolic tree browser is not itself an end-user product, but is licensed to application companies for use in their products. NetCarta uses the browser in its WebMapper 2.0, a management tool for Web masters that lets them keep track of their sites. Last December, NetCarta was acquired by Microsoft, which plans to incorporate WebMapper into BackOffice and its Normandy line of Internet servers.

According to Reza Malekzadeh, a product manager at NetCarta, the hyperbolic browser improves WebMapper's display of Web site structure.

Apple is also trying gain a toehold in this market with its HotSauce Meta Content Format, a technology that can generate 3D "fly-throughs" of Web sites in which pages are suspended as if in outer space.

Although Web mapping tools are becoming common features in site management tools, they have largely failed to catch on with consumers. NetCarta's Malekzadeh said that the company will discontinue its CyberPilot product, an end-user version of WebMapper for navigating sites.

Analysts said that companies are having more success with promoting personal broadcasting services, such as PointCast and BackWeb, that "push" information to consumers.

"What we're seeing on the consumer front is the packaging of Web surfers into discrete services," said John Robb, senior researcher at Forrester Research. "We're seeing the 'channelization' of Web pages. What's happening is a lot of the surfing and searching aspects are being taken out of your hands."