Educators, students, researchers, and others looking for free online access to reliable information now have another internet research offering at their disposal, one that aims to be a more authoritative alternative to Wikipedia.

It’s a lofty ambition–the internet equivalent of the Public Broadcasting Service, its founders say, a user-supported resource that pays top academics to create authoritative maps, articles, and links to third-party content related to virtually any scholarly topic.

But the vast scope of the project hasn’t stopped former high-flying Silicon Valley entrepreneur Joe Firmage from building Digital Universe, a commercial-free internet research clearinghouse four years in the making. As with any internet source, educators should review information carefully and make up their own minds about the value and viability of Digital Universe. Skeptics are already pointing out potential shortcomings of the new resource.

A pilot version that debuted in January includes 50 or so portals, or entry points, on topics such as technology, the Earth, and the solar system. Firmage says it will mushroom to at least 500 portals by next year and 10,000 by 2011.

Clicking on the Earth portal, for example, presents the visitor with links, reportedly vetted by experts for accuracy, to related articles, images, lists of frequently asked questions, and other resources from sites such as, NASA, and the University of Hawaii’s department of geology and geophysics.

The Earth portal is also a jumping-off point to sub-portals on topics such as the atmosphere and hydrosphere, which in turn provide links to vetted content and further sub-portals. The approach is designed to give visitors a graphical means to find topics and understand how they are related to subjects in another category.

Little-known Digital Universe is trying to horn in on a crowded field, where sites such as Google Inc. and Wikipedia attract millions of visitors each month and already offer content on many scholarly topics.

Firmage and his backers say Digital Universe’s biggest asset is the trust readers will feel knowing that every link, graphic, and article has been vetted by an army of academics.

“When you type something like ‘Arctic climate change’ as a search term, or discover it through this navigation system, you’re going to get the No. 1 link, the most highly evolved, most accurate, most comprehensive information resource for the ‘arctic climate change’ subject area,” Firmage said.

Other portals included in the pilot are related to energy, national parks, nanotechnology, and recycling. A 3-D graphical interface that adds more depth to the process will be available in April. For those who prefer a more traditional means of navigating the site, text searches also are possible.

The site has been under construction since 2002 by Scotts Valley, Calif.-based ManyOne Networks, a 56-employee company that has received about $10 million in financing from Firmage and angel investors. ManyOne Networks has been recruiting professors to become “stewards” of each portal and building offerings such as eMail services to generate revenue.

Digital Universe seeks to improve on the ground broken by Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that allows anyone to contribute and edit articles. Wikipedia’s volunteer model offers an impressive body of content, boasting 1 million articles in English on everything from art deco to nuclear physics.

But Wikipedia’s open system also has led to the publication of fraudulent articles, and authors sometimes have undisclosed conflicts of interest, critics have charged.

Instead of relying on anonymous volunteers, Digital Universe will pay experts, mostly academics, to write encyclopedia articles and to round up outside video, audio, online chats, and other resources.

Firmage has pledged that access to basic content on Digital Universe will remain free forever and that it will never include ads. To fund the venture, the site will sell monthly subscriptions that let visitors get additional content and features, many of them offered by for-profit third parties, such as film producers, game makers, map providers, and book publishers.

“Imagine how many people would be interested in subscribing for $7.95 per month to get all those additional activities,” Firmage said. He predicts the site will have at least 10 million paying subscribers within seven years. (At the end of February, it was reported, Digital Universe had more than 10,000 subscribers.)

The monthly fee entitles subscribers to an eMail service offered by Digital Universe; high-speed internet access offered by third parties also is available for $40 or $50 per month, depending on the speed.

Academics and others contributing content will get 25 percent of the proceeds, but the money isn’t the only motivation for participating, said Peter Saundry, a physicist with the nonpartisan National Council for Science and the Environment. He heads the group responsible for Digital Universe’s environmental portal.

“At every scientific meeting you ever go to on any subject, one thing you hear is the general public doesn’t understand what we’re doing,” Saundry said. “This now is a tool for the scientific community to [help inform the public].”

Not everyone is so sanguine about the prospects for success. Selling eMail and internet accounts is frequently an unprofitable venture. Cataloging the best content on the web is an undertaking companies such as Yahoo Inc. abandoned years ago. And other encyclopedias–online or otherwise–already seek authoritativeness by soliciting articles from various experts.

Skeptics also say the Digital Universe site is too complex, lacking the simplicity found on successful sites such as Google.

“Something like this [Digital Universe] is a vision of the future that will probably come to pass, but it won’t be implemented like this because their vision is too comprehensive,” said John Perry Barlow, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and a longtime acquaintance of Firmage. “They want to cover everything, which is generally a bad way to go.”

Firmage, 35, founded his first company in 1989 and sold it four years later to software maker Novell Inc., reportedly for $20 million. He started USWeb Corp., a web site development consulting company, in 1995, and over the next five years he led it on a major acquisition binge. It was said to be worth more than $2 billion when he left.

He stepped down as CEO and chairman when investors grew uncomfortable with a treatise he had published claiming to have proof that the federal government had observed electromagnetic propulsion systems and other technologies developed by aliens.

Firmage said he stands by the treatise, which he titled “The Truth,” even though he no longer posts it online.

“It was just too controversial, so I took it down,” he said.

Having demonstrated Digital Universe for three years, Firmage said he’s heard plenty of skepticism about the venture.

“One of the reasons I feel very confident in the long-term viability of this entire effort is that, unlike all of the major information resource providers out there, this will be owned and governed,” he said, “entirely by nonprofits.”


Digital Universe