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Tool aims to integrate catalogs

A tiny firm out of Stanford University seeks to commercialize technology to integrate multiple online catalogs or databases into a single format.

A tiny company out of Stanford University is seeking to commercialize technology to integrate multiple online catalogs or databases into a single format so users can see data in consistent formats of their own choosing.

The technology, called Infomaster, addresses the problem of how to retrieve information from different databases that are set up in incompatible formats. It was created on a federal government contract for CommerceNet by a company calling itself Epistemics. Two Stanford computer scientists are now seeking venture capital to launch the company this summer.

The first demonstration of Infomaster involves buying a mundane set of products--pots, pans, and other cookware--in a project involving Sears; the National Housewares Manufacturers Association; kitchenware manufacturers Corning, Regal, and Mirro; and GE Information Systems, an electronic commerce services firm.

The project involves taking information from the manufacturers' catalog databases--all set up with different parameters, different descriptions of similar goods, and different terminology--and formatting it for Sears corporate housewares buyers to make comparisons on the basis of pricing, specifications, and so on.

Michael Genesereth, an Epistemics cofounder, offered another sample problem that might face an Internet consumer: "Where can I get a 200-MHz laptop for less than $2,000 by next Friday?" That questions would involve pulling information from disconnected databases.

"You have to access more than one to answer the question," he noted. Another example: "Give me a list of two-bedroom apartments for rent in Santa Clara County."

The pots and pans trial has gone well enough that Epistemics is now addressing business issues on turning the experiment into a business. Among the options: Let a service provider like GEIS offer the service and charge both vendors and retailers; let a retailer like Sears set up and maintain the system for itself with its suppliers; or offer the service directly to consumers charging a commission on sales.

Analyst Nicole Vanderbilt of Jupiter Communications sees promise for the technology in specific markets but isn't sure if it's ready for prime time in the consumer space.

But Jack Wilson, managing editor of the ComputerLetter newsletter, thinks the idea is a sound one--if it works. "As we get into really widespread Net-based electronic commerce, there needs to be a way to pull together product information that is going to be scattered and not necessarily cohesive," he said.

But Wilson too thinks it may find its first applications in the business-to-business sphere because it requires a certain level of cooperation between competitive vendors.