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The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $500,000 grant to web research startup Scrible, which is launching its public beta today. Scrible’s bookmarklet is meant to facilitate annotation of web pages for the sake of research, archiving and collaboration.

Web annotation has been done before. A lot. And with very mediocre results. There’s even a slew of “Finally, Web Annotation that Makes Sense” and “Web Annotation Done Right” articles out there. The more interesting attempts include LayersWebNotesReframeIt, and Google Sidewiki.

Despite the crowded market, Scrible could do well. The big problem with early annotation services is that they weren’t trying to assuage pain. They wanted to be the “public layer” of the Internet or simply enable fun antics like drawing graffiti mustaches on New York Times homepage pictures—but they weren’t solving any problems. (One exception was WebNotes, which went after a specific vertical, public relations, where professionals had a strong interest in sharing marked-up web pages.)

Scrible CEO Victor Karkar says this is where his company differs. “This emphasis on annotating the Web at large is reminiscent of Web 1.0 startup Third Voice, which created public or community forums around web pages. Even Hotmail Founder Sabeer Bhatia tried this with BlogEverywhere.  … Nothing wrong with that, but creating public discourse on the wide Web is a very different model involving different use cases, usage patterns and interactions, both with the content and among users.”

Rather than creating a public forum, Scrible wants to help you pull things off the web. If you ever copy and paste a Web article into Word, or print out a page to mark it up, Scrible wants to help.

The company lets users do three things: Save articles and pages so they’re available if the original goes offline; richly annotate online content using tools reminiscent of Word (highlighter, sticky note, etc.), and share annotated pages privately with others.

As with any application, the proof is in the UI. Karkar claims Scrible’s functionality is more sophisticated and its annotation types more numerous than anything currently available. The latter includes multicolor sticky notes; highlighters; and bold, underlined, italicized and strikeout text. These annotation types “can be overlapped (underlined and highlighted, for example). This is something we all take for granted in Word, but no one’s been able to implement (well) for web pages.  The reason is that it’s technically non-trivial to implement consistently across all pages on the Internet,” said Karkar.

We could see this being used by research teams, especially in communications and PR, and it could get some traction in marketing departments.

The funding comes from an NSF Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II grant and follows a Phase I grant of $100k.

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