eBay’s in the ‘Hood

October 26, 2007

by Jack Schofield

Like Google, eBay has become a verb, and users say things like: “I ebayed a dozen books last week.”

This reflects the fact that it has been around for a long time – since 1995 – and is hugely popular. It now has 233 million users in 37 markets, including the US and the UK.

Along the way, eBay has acquired a lot of rival sites and a few complementary ones, such as PayPal, Skype and the social bookmarking site, StumbleUpon. eBay also owns Gumtree, a popular small ads network, and 25% of Craigslist.

And although the basic service has not changed much over the past decade, eBay does try to innovate. Last week, for example, it introduced Neighborhoods, a new social networking service. It’s also beta testing a desktop program codenamed San Dimas, which allows users to do things while offline. This is pioneering software developed for AIR, the Adobe Integrated Runtime, which enables users to run Flash-based programs outside the confines of a web browser.

eBay recently introduced a Facebook widget that enables users to put listings on their Facebook page, and another dozen enhancements are in the works. In particular, it’s experimenting with a new search system called Finding 2.0. This is being used in “the Playground”, which is “a separate eBay site that lets you experiment with new features we’ve come up with, before we consider introducing them on the regular eBay site”. Note that all the auction items and bids are real: it’s not somewhere to play around. Finding 2.0 is a much-needed attempt to make search smarter. It would be nice if it was more reliable at finding things, too.

Social networking is obviously trendy, following the huge success of MySpace and Facebook. It also makes a lot of sense on eBay: it should help users with particular interests (eg Quad hi-fi not Quad Bikes) find one another and share information, and increase the level of confidence you feel when bidding. From eBay’s point of view, it could also encourage people to hang around on the site, and thus to sell or spend more.

However, eBay has a tendency to add whatever’s trendy without the new features ever making a significant difference. For example, how many people know that eBay already offers users their own blog, and how many people actually use them? eBay also has MyWorld, Groups, Reviews, Answers, chat rooms, a Wiki and the ludicrous MatchUps.

Maybe it’s just me, but all this stuff looks utterly pointless, and I won’t be surprised if Neighborhoods turns out to be a waste of time. The only things that make a real difference are the built-in mail and the discussion forums.

There are plenty of things eBay could do to improve its core service. These include better search, more detailed categorisation and tagging, more space for feedback (160 instead of 80 characters), quicker action against scammers, lower PayPal fees and a real help service. In comparison, adding Neighborhoods is trivial.

Will mashups ever be mass market?

October 26, 2007

By Jack Schofield


When Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer spoke at last week’s prestigious Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco, he announced a public beta test version of Popfly to try to impress the crowd. Because it’s based on Silverlight, Microsoft’s alternative to Adobe Flash, it can certainly do some nice visual tricks. Its practical value is, of course, another matter.

Popfly is an online system where anybody can create a graphical web page, a mashup or a Windows Vista Sidebar gadget by “drag and drop” programming.

The term “mashup” comes from the music business where it is used for mixes made from two or more different songs. In web 2.0 terms, it means combining data from two or more sources. One of the best known mashups takes government crime figures for Chicago and plots them on a Google map of Chicago.

When Yahoo! launched a beta test site for creating mashups in February, it had the idea of streams of data being changed and combined: the result was Yahoo! Pipes. Popfly uses a different kind of imagery that’s much more like object-oriented programming. Everything comes in a red box or block, and you create your mashup by linking red blocks together.

The Popfly toolbox already contains dozens of blocks. Look under Display, for example, and there are blocks such as Bar graph, Carousel, Chat bubbles, Page Turner, Photosphere and Slideshow.

Other blocks offer streams of data, including RSS feeds of news reports, Twitter and Upcoming. There are also blocks such as Combine, Filter, Sort and Timer so you can do things with data along the way. If you can’t find the sort of block you want, you can create one.

Each block contains lines of computer code, so when you link them together, you are actually writing a program. What’s cool is that it doesn’t feel like it.

Popfly has lots of nice visual effects, but I found some things didn’t do what I expected, and it wasn’t always easy to see why.

For example, I did an extremely simple mashup to fish 100 random Paris Hilton pictures from a search engine, and display them in a mini-album on my Facebook profile page. Actually it showed only 20 images, and it didn’t display them on Facebook: it just put a link to the album on Popfly. It was easier to post it to a blog: even I can manage a one-line copy-and-paste operation!

There are several sites doing the same sort of thing as Pipes and Popfly, and Intel has just unveiled MashMaker, promising “Mashups for the Masses”. Google also has the Google Mashup Editor, which is only suitable for programmers. No doubt there will be many more.

Microsoft’s mantra is “developers, developers, developers,” and naturally it wants to make programming accessible to people with no programming skills.

Given enough pre-created blocks, I can imagine lots of people connecting two blocks, or even a few, if it does something they really need. But a mass market? I don’t think so!