Information inundation being what it is these days, culling what's valuable from media listings — TV and radio programs, news bulletins, movies, music — is a daunting, time-consuming chore.
What we all need is an interactive media guide that's updated constantly and tailored to our individual tastes and needs — not just by media companies but also by the people we trust most.
And that's not all. This guide should alert us immediately to something vital, like a news flash. Let it also be a conduit, like instant messaging, that allows people we specify to reach us in real time.
Creating the foundation for such a service is the latest project of one of the Internet's most innovative provocateurs, Carl Malamud, and a team of programming heavyweights who previously helped write the Internet's traffic laws, set the speed limits, even design the vehicles.
This past week, Malamud converted the endeavor, dubbed NetTopBox, into a nonprofit venture.
"We really call it a public works project," Malamud said. "It is no different from building a public park or a railroad or dam."
Except, of course, that it would be at once everywhere and nowhere. And no one would own it. Many different media companies would feed it.
At least that's the idea.
Author, programmer and agitator, Malamud has long worked on trying to ensure that grassy public parks coexist on the Internet beside its crass commercial strips.
When the World Wide Web was in diapers, Malamud was already producing the Internet's first talk-radio program. Long before RealAudio, he was webcasting National Press Club speeches.
In 1994, Malamud made available online the full text of corporate filings to the Security and Exchange Commission. Later, he added large databases of other key federal agencies.
Malamud's nonprofit Internet Multicasting Service crowned those shoestring efforts in 1998 by pressuring the government to place its patent database on the Internet.
"Carl has an amazing track record of accomplishing what he sets out to do," said Tom Kalil, a former technology adviser to President Clinton.
Malamud, 42, and his Web designer wife, Rebecca, co-founder and equal partner in NetTopBox, originally launched it as a startup that attracted $1 million in private capital. But when the investment climate soured last year, they and their partners decided the Internet Multicasting Service would purchase the venture.
A year ago, the Malamuds moved from New York City to a log home on the northern California coast to begin putting together the software infrastructure — or protocols — and raise an infant son.
Their team is now seeking sponsors, courting media companies and seeing potential allies in network news divisions in particular.
Rod Prince, executive producer at NBC Weekend Nightly News for seven years until his December retirement, met with NetTopBox officials last year and liked the idea.
"If in fact the flexibility, the immediacy and the ease of use can be demonstrated, I think all the content providers would be to happy to go with them," Prince said.
Among reasons for taking NetTopBox nonprofit, one loomed large: The interactive programming guide world is currently dominated by TV Guide brand owner Gemstar, which vigorously defends its patents.
Although Malamud says he's not competing with Gemstar, he reckons he could be in for an eventual legal tussle. Gemstar officials would not comment, saying they have not seen a product.
Driving NetTopBox are objections to the current closed, proprietary systems that portion out programming information. Malamud complains that the market is "ossifying because there's not enough small innovative players."
Now that set-top boxes are becoming Internet-enabled and computing more decentralized, there's no reason they can't allow viewers to communicate with one another through core software that is in the public domain, just like the code underlying the rest of the Internet, Malamud argues.
With NetTopBox, the program guide would know what gadgets you have, your interests and your willingness to share preferences.
So if your haute cuisine pal across town wants to alert you a particular cooking show, and you happen to be in front of the TV, it's a simple matter of a click or two. If network TV is pre-empting scheduled shows for a bulletin, and you're away from the television, you could be alerted through your cell phone.
Malamud's team is developing the underlying technology, using approaches such as those employed by the Google search engine for page rankings and by Amazon.com for predicting customer preferences.
Media companies — and databases such as CDDB, which catalogues music CDs — would then help contribute the listings and content.
Malamud estimates the project will cost $3.5 million over two years.
NetTopBox may never catch on. Malamud readily acknowledges the risk of opting for an ambitious "proof of concept" rather than attempting to create a niche business in collaborative media.
The programming required to create an open interactive programming guide "shouldn't be hard in and of itself," said Fred Baker, chairman of the Internet Engineering Task Force from 1996-2001.
"What will probably be hard is getting that information given to him (Malamud) in real time without getting a money feed going back to those who are providing it," he said.
"Of course he's pretty good at making those things happen," Baker added. "If there's a wheeler-dealer, it's Carl."