March 31, 1997
Netbot shops the Internet's myriad malls
M. Sharon Baker
eattle start-up Netbot Inc. hopes to revolutionize the fledgling world of Internet shopping with software that works like an intelligent buying assistant.
Netbot's Jango software, to be introduced next month, promises to plumb the databases of Internet retailers for information on any given product, without producing all the useless listings that a typical search engine would generate.
"From the consumer point of view, online shopping is a pain," said Netbot co-founder Oren Etzioni. "We wanted to make it easier. There are all these stores online, scattered all over the place. We're bringing the pieces together to make it easier to shop."
Tim Sloan, director of Internet research for Boston-based Aberdeen Group, a computer market research firm, called Jango "a cool product."
"Jango is going to cause a ripple in the time continuum of the Internet. This shows what can be accomplished in a search engine when it knows the specific research you're asking about."
At Jango's central screen, a customer might type in, say, "That book by Bill Gates." Jango will search for all the online stores that carry the book. It then brings back a listing from each site that sells the book, including any available information such as pricing, reviews and manufacturer's specifications. A customer then can easily compare prices and other features.
Once a customer decides to buy from one of the retailers, the Jango software automatically will fill out the order form with information the customer provided when registering the Jango software.
By contrast, said Sloan, if you ask a typical search engine for information about records by Elton John, you'll get back 50 million hits, but less than 10 percent will have anything do to with the musician.
Netbot's intelligent agent, as the type of technology is called, is engineered so that its results are much more targeted and specific.
"What they are trying to do is make it the shopping center of your choice, and they've done a great job of going in and identifying the things you want to shop for," Sloan said.
Etzioni said that other search tools, known in Internet jargon as spiders, scour the Internet and index the information they see. But most of today's spiders can't get into databases, he said.
"This is a fundamentally different technology that is able to query these databases. This is a new beast on the Web."
Etzioni called Netbot's approach "parallel pull," as opposed to the conventional query or "pull" from a single Web site. Jango can go out and simultaneously grab information from scores of sites.
A test or beta version of the software can be downloaded for free starting in April at http://www.jango.com.
The technology is an outgrowth of research by Etzioni and Dan Weld, who are both professors at the University of Washington. The two formed Netbot in May 1996, and Jango is the company's first product.
Four venture-capital firms invested more than $1 million to help start the company. They were led by Chicago-based Arch Venture Partners, which has a Seattle office. Some technology is licensed from University of Washington, and the university is a shareholder in Netbot.
Netbot executives, led by president Eric Zocher, plan to make money in several ways. They hope to interest manufacturers to sponsor product categories. They also plan to work with retailers, allowing them to buy advertising space so they can notify customers if a product has a special warranty or is 25 percent off during a specific week. Several other advertising and sponsorship-like ideas are also under consideration.
"Jango is going to force catalog companies and sales sites to confront the fact that comparative shopping becomes easier, and (vendors) will have to figure out how they're going to present relevant information," said Sloan.
Netbot's biggest hurdle could be making people aware that its software exists. That's shouldn't be too hard, Sloan said, since the technology is on the leading edge and thus could get a lot of recognition.
"The worst case scenario is that it's an overnight smash hit," he added. "Then they'll have to keep the system up and running and not scare customers away with slow performance. If it takes off like a rocket, being responsive will be a real challenge."
© 1997, Puget Sound Business Journal
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