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The Internet gets social

Netomat is distributing a test version of its software, which combines familiar online conventions and novel ideas in an effort to change the way people communicate over the Web.

Take the multimedia aspects of the Web, the personal connection of the blog, and the social dynamics of instant messaging. Add some art theory and business strategy, and mix well.

Netomat, an Internet start-up that began as a modern art project, is hoping that's the recipe for an Internet revolution. The New York-based company on Tuesday began distributing a test version of its Internet software, which combines familiar Internet conventions and novel ideas with an eye toward changing the way people communicate and connect over the Web.

The Internet "should be like every other social medium, where the individuals involved in the conversation direct it," said Netomat founder Maciej Wisniewski.

Netomat, which will morph into a subscription service after the beta phase, includes hosting services plus a browser and design tools for viewing and creating pages in "Netomat markup language" an open standard Wisniewski created based on Sun Microsystems' Java. He chose an early version of the Java Runtime Environment because it was stable, widespread, and wouldn't tax low-end PCs. "We looked around and said, 'What's there on people's machines already?" Wisniewski said.

The design menu is a collection of simple tools for adding photos, text and sound to a page. An average page with a few photos, a voice greeting from the creator, and brief text can be created and published in a few minutes.

Others who view the Web page can add drawings, text, links and other content. Subsequent viewers can see the original page and all the modifications. The author sets permission rules for interactivity, so pages can range from static to constantly changing graffiti walls.

Alan Gershenfeld, co-CEO of Netomat, shows a family tree page he created for his clan. Relatives can fill in missing parts of the chart and link to genealogies of in-laws, resulting in a continually evolving and growing online document

Wisniewski, a programmer who specializes in , started Netomat in 1999 as a network-based art project focused on exploring alternatives to static HTML Web pages. More than a million people in 80 countries downloaded the Netomat software, using it to create and experience thousands of sites.

"It's basically an experiential browser, built on a very specific conceptual framework," Wisniewski said. "The thing you need to realize is that software is not neutral--it structures our thinking. A good example is PowerPoint (Microsoft's presentation program) and this crazy idea it's created that any concept can be represented by a series of bullet points."

Gershenfeld, a former executive at game publisher Activision, was impressed with the Netomat idea and saw other opportunities. He and co-CEO Kris Ramanathan began spearheading development of the software and recruited financial backing from an odd combination of venture capitalists and arts organizations. "The Rockefeller Foundation gave us a grant based on our potential for cultural relevance," he said.

Initial interest in Netomat has been from individual users, but Gershenfeld has been working with a number of businesses interested in licensing the software. Newspapers see the software as a potential basis for combining from-the-field reporting and reader interaction. Corporations can use it as a quick and easy alternative to expensive collaboration applications. And matchmaker sites could go to a whole new level with the amount of interactivity Netomat affords. "It'd be like 'Hot or Not' on steroids," Wisniewski said.