No More Solitary Surfing

SAN FRANCISCO (04/21/2000) - Tired of surfing the Web alone? With the browser add-on, CrowdBurst, your solitary surfing days are over.

Just stop by Crowdburst.com, pick a username, and give the Web site permission to load a pop-up browser window on your desktop: You'll have the Web's latest chat, bulletin board, and co-browsing client.

CrowdBurst Corp., which began offering its services Thursday in beta form, is the community software client du jour trying to create online cliques for lonely Web surfers.

The market for group browsing tools isn't new, says Gene Alvarez, a Meta Group analyst. In fact, he says, there are so many CrowdBurst look-alikes that the niche is similar to commodity Web-based e-mail services.

To name a few, products such as Gooey, SideTalk, and Cahoots let you see who else running that software is visiting a particular Web site, so you can chat with them.

Test-Drive

The market may be saturated, but I gave CrowdBurst a fighting chance. I tried the service and found it incredibly easy to start. It has an uncomplicated interface and some unique features.

No demographic information is required when you sign up. You simply grant permission for CrowdBurst to download a small Java applet onto your computer.

Next, a CrowdBurst icon appears on your Quick Launch toolbar, and a browser pop-up window launches with the application.

Inside the 3-by-5-inch pop-up window are three main tabs serving as navigational tools. The top tab is called Chat. Chat rooms are listed on the left and users on the right. When you create a new chat room, you become its "leader." The primary privilege of being leader is the ability to launch co-browsing sessions, which let you take visitors to any Web site and chat at the same time.

A second tab, Notes, lets you post messages at any Web page. For instance, after reading a news story on CNN.com, you can post a comment for the next surfer using CrowdBurst to read. As you navigate the Web, the service alerts you of other CrowdBurst users viewing the same page and of any CrowdBurst messages.

A Trails tab lets you leave a list of Web sites for other people to follow. Say you want to give someone a guided tour of great vacation spots in France; you can leave behind annotated links for anyone to follow.

Alas, not everything ran smoothly. The beta version of CrowdBurst crashed my Netscape browser twice. At times Thursday the service didn't work at all.

Another gripe is that the app doesn't alert you that your CrowdBurst buddies are online. Furthermore, you can't send private messages to other CrowdBurst users.

CrowdBurst points to the program's beta status and asks us to stay tuned.

Admission Price

The service is free, but CrowdBurst comes with banner ads inside the client. In the future, it plans to profile users' surfing habits and sell aggregate data of CrowdBurst members' surfing preferences.

Notwithstanding a number of technical glitches, I give the beta version of CrowdBurst high marks. But its survival among a boisterous mob of competing look-alike services is a different test.

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