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Informix dolls up data interface

Informix invests in Perspecta, a start-up cofounded by Nicholas Negroponte and MIT Media Lab colleagues, to create software that graphically represents information.

Informix (IFMX) has entered a deal with a start-up company to develop cutting-edge user interface software for navigating through information.

The database company has made an equity investment in Perspecta, a start-up venture cofounded by Nicholas Negroponte and other veterans of MIT's Media Lab.

Informix has licensed the company's technology for use in its future products, and Perspecta said it will use Informix's Universal Server database as the foundation for its technology.

Perspecta, which was formed in January and has yet to ship a product, is developing what it calls "visualization software" for viewing data stored in databases and Web sites. "The problem is the amount of information that people have to deal with. There is no context, no big picture," said David Clarke, director of product marketing at Perspecta. "We're working on products that give you the big picture and show you how data is related."

Clarke said the company's forthcoming products, planned for shipment around midyear, are derived from research done on navigating through large volumes of information by Negroponte and other company founders at the MIT Media Lab.

Perspecta and other start-ups such as Semio are building new client software intended to give users a more graphical view of data and its representations. Instead of a textual listing of database or Web site contents, the new tools show a multidimensional view of data, including lines that represent relationships between data points.

In Perspecta's upcoming product, the multidimensional view is called an "information space," Clarke said. "It shows the breadth and depth of information and relationships and projects information spaces using a Java client that lets users navigate or fly through data."

Informix sees the technology as a way to gain a strategic advantage over its competitors in the database market; they include Oracle and Sybase. The company plans to use the technology internally, at first, on its corporate intranet. Later this year, the Perspecta client software will be integrated in the company's external tech support Web site called Answers Online, according to Rich Julius, director of knowledge systems at Informix.

"Perspecta lets you aggregate and organize data in a visual way, kind of fly around in it, and it's multidimensional. That's the piece of the puzzle that's been missing. Databases can store and retrieve data in any way you wish. The user interface is where a breakthrough is needed," Julius said.

Informix customers will be able to get their hands on the Perspecta technology later this year, Julius added. The company may bundle the software with its Universal Server database and may also include tools for building a Perspecta interface into an upcoming development tool, he said.