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Adobe, profs working on web time-machine app

'Zoetrope' travels into distant past 1990s

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A collaborative effort between Adobe and the University of Washington intends to offer a new web archiving and search app called Zoetrope, which would allow users to search past versions of the web as well as what is out there at the moment.

"Your browser is really just a window into the Web as it exists today," says Eytan Adar, doctorate student at Washington Uni.

"When you search for something online you're only getting today's results."

Or anyway the results that existed when the Googlebots last crawled the site - and often enough even those have already been superseded or disappeared. And once the Google cache turns over (or whichever search engine you favour) you can't easily find what went before.

That's what the Zoetrope system is meant to sort out. But there have been such efforts before.

Adar and his chums at both Adobe Systems and UW reckon that other web-timemachine services aren't up to snuff, though. The Internet Archive, for instance, can't be easily searched and uses "inconsistent" records. That said, they hope eventually to incorporate the Internet Archive database into their records.

The idea of Zoetrope is that it would bring the ease of the current web to historical searching. For instance, rather than trawling through old pdf documents to find out about past traffic patterns, you could simply run back through time looking at traffic-map sites. Or you could link two historical searches, like athletic records broken and air pollution in Beijing.

For now, Zoetrope only records a thousand sites every hour. Challenges for the future include scaling this up to to cover the whole web, and making the system decide for itself how often it needs to snapshot a site.

The allied UW and Adobe engineers' efforts are funded by the National Science Foundation, the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists Foundation and the Washington Research Foundation. They hope to release the Zoetrope client free, perhaps as early as next summer, and say that it could be added on or embedded into existing browsers.

"Zoetrope is aimed at the casual researcher," said Dan Weld, UW prof. "It's really for anyone who has a question." ®

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