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Xerox spinoff touts service for better Web surfing

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PALO ALTO - Corporate workgroups looking for a more productive way to search the Web can now access a free Internet service for sharing bookmarks that was developed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

Called GroupFire, the service lets users access, search and share their favorite Web resources from any computer over the Internet. GroupFire has a surf-along user interface that automatically records an end user's favorite URLs. The list of URLs is regularly updated to reflect changes in a user's surfing habits. The list can be kept private or posted to a group.

"Our focus is on URLs," says Jim Pitkow, a research scientist at Xerox PARC and CEO of a spinoff venture set up to commercialize the GroupFire technology. "URLs are the currency of the Web. That's how we refer to documents. GroupFire makes it easier for people to share URLs."

GroupFire received its initial funding from Xerox, which maintains minority ownership. GroupFire officials are in the process of closing a first round of venture capital funding. The management team consists of six researchers from Xerox PARC - with expertise in information retrieval, language processing and Web technologies - who are working on the start-up full time.

GroupFire released a beta version of its service in early December. The offering requires no software on the client. A final version of the service will be available this quarter.

The GroupFire service is free to end users and will be sold through OEM arrangements to search engine and portal vendors. Company officials expect to announce the first OEM sales in the next month or two. The goal of these deals is to provide personalized searching, in which the criteria used to answer a query includes a profile created from the end user's bookmarks. By combining bookmarks with searching, GroupFire hopes to improve the relevance of a search engine's results.

"We have technology that enables personalized search," Pitkow says. "You'll get results back that are relevant to you."

Later this year, GroupFire will announce a software product for internal corporate use.

GroupFire competitors offer services that let end users store, access and search bookmarks from any computer on the 'Net, but these services do not offer workgroup functionality.

For example, San Francisco-based Backflip, which was launched in November by two Netscape veterans, offers a free service that lets end users record and search through their bookmarks by clicking on a special toolbar. Backflip officials say they will soon update the service to let users share their favorite URLs.

HotLinks, a Mountain View, Calif., start-up that launched in 1998 and is funded by CMGI@Ventures, is offering a community bookmarking service that lets users share their favorite Web sites and view the public links of other members.

In December, HotLinks published an online guide to all the public links that its members had posted - like a popularity ranking of Web sites. The guide is designed to be an alternative to traditional search engines.

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