Web Travel Resources

November 16, 2007

By A. Martin

Practically every airline trip today begins on the Internet. But with so many travel-related Web sites, if you don’t know where to look, you can end up experiencing information overload, wasting time, and getting frustrated.

Travelocity.Travelocity Business promises 24-hour-a-day phone support for business travelers at no additional charge. Its FareWatcher Plus gives you automatic updates on fare changes and deals for up to ten destinations. Windows Vista users can install the Travelocity Desktop FareWatcher gadget to receive alerts.

Expedia. This popular site also offers tools and services for business travelers. In addition, it includes helpful tips and information on 65 airports worldwide, to help you figure out how to spend your time during layovers.

Orbitz. Orbitz’s Traveler Update provides a dashboard-style overview of current security wait times, local traffic, weather, flight status, parking rates, Wi-Fi network accessibility, and other information for U.S. airports. Traveler Update combines information generated by users as well as reports from the FAA, TSA, and other sources. You can use the service on your computer and on Web-enabled phones.

SideStep.This site searches over 200 travel booking and airline sites–including Expedia, Travelocity, and JetBlue–and displays results in its downloadable toolbar. When you research a trip on a travel booking site, SideStep’s toolbar automatically pops up to show you the itineraries it recommends so you can easily comparison shop. You can search for airfares, hotels, cars, vacation packages, cruises, and more.

Airfarewatchdog.com. The folks at Airfarewatchdog.com claim that “real people” compare airfares on airlines that booking Web sites don’t typically include, such as Southwest Airlines. The site also includes smaller airlines, such as Allegiant Air and international carriers, which don’t usually share their best fares with the big travel booking sites. The site is no-frills but includes useful features, such as Fare of the Day and Top 50 Fares.

LastMinuteTravel.com. The name pretty much sums it up.This siteis designed to help you find the best fares for airlines, hotels, cruises, rental cars, and vacation packages, particularly for those traveling with little advance notice.

Mobissimo. Unlike some travel booking sites,Mobissimo lets you search for international trips as well as domestic U.S. jaunts. The site is limited to airlines, hotels, and rental cars.

Flycheapo.com. This bare-bones site is useful for finding low-cost carriers within Europe.

WhichBudget. Going beyond Flycheapo.com,WhichBudget helps you find low-cost carriers in 124 countries. The site’s text-heavy interface will give you flashbacks to the mid-nineties, but it’s worth a visit nonetheless.

I wrote about the following sites in my July column.

Farecast. This site charts recent airfare history for the itineraries you enter and predicts what your trip is likely to cost in the immediate future.PC World named Farecastone of the 20 Most/ Innovative Products of 2006.

Kayak. Use Kayak to search multiple travel booking sites. The Buzz section reveals the best prices others have found using the site. Kayak was named one of PC World’s Top 100 Best Products of 2007.

ITA Software.This site is known for being objective (unlike some travel sites) and makes it easy to find itineraries that combine the lowest fares and convenient routing.

Yapta. You can use Yaptato get alerts whenever an airline itinerary you’ve booked drops in price. Armed with that knowledge, you may be able to receive a refund or credit for the difference between what you paid and the lower fare.

FlightStats. Head to FlightStats for on-time performance records for major airlines.

SeatGuru. Peruse seating diagrams for domestic and international planes at SeatGuru.

15 Essential Mobile Web Sites: Ever needed to make, shall we say, a pit stop when you’re on the go? The mobile browser version of MizPee may help you find the quick relief you need. Read about MizPee and 14 other great Web sites for mobile browsers in our roundup.

The Best Mobile Browsers: You might not be surprised to learn that Apple’s Safari Mobile, for the iPhone, earned our thumbs up among mobile browsers. We also reviewed Palm’s Blazer, the RIM BlackBerry browser, and others. Which browser came in last price? You might be surprised.

Mobile Broadband Explained: Quick–what’s the difference between EvDO and EDGE? If you’re not sure, read our “Business Buyer’s Guide to Mobile Broadband.”

Stuck in an unfamiliar town? These sites help you get the most out of your business trip.

Menu Pages.This guide to over 25,000 restaurants in eight metro areas provides user reviews and downloadable menus.

OpenTable.com. Want to book a table for four people tomorrow night at 8 o’clock?OpenTable.com lets you quickly discover which restaurants in a given city (20 in the U.S., a few internationally) have availability at a particular time, then book a table. Members earn points that can be redeemed for discounts at participating eateries. OpenTable.com includes links to reviews in Zagat.com and other sites.

Zagat. The famed guide to restaurants, featuring consumer reviews and ratings, is available digitally in several forms. You can get restaurant details for freeon your laptop(but no ratings or reviews) or cell phone Web browser. For $5 (for 30 days) or $25 (for 12 months), you can access Zagat’s reviews and ratings on a laptop or cell phone browser. Other options: Download the Zagat application and database ($30) onto your Palm, BlackBerry, or Pocket PC handheld; or buy a CD-ROM for your computer ($30). Go to the Zagat Survey Shop for
info on these service.

Chowhound. Thisfoodie sitefeatures reviews and tips from diners around the world, plus interviews with experts; forums; videos; and blogs

TripAdvisor. Here’s where hotel junkies trade secrets, reviews, tips, and photos. Users rate hotels on such things as service, value, and cleanliness.The site features forums, in which travelers pose questions to other travelers. You can also book hotel and airline reservations.

USAToday.com. The newspaper’s Hotel Hot sheet blog is ideal for keeping up with the latest hotel trends and news.

HotelChatter.This blog has tons of hotel news, gossip, and reviews, as well as annually updated lists of the best and worst hotels with Wi-Fi.

Google Maps. I’ve had mixed success with all the mapping/direction sites. But I use Google Maps most often, because I love the satellite and street view features and the real-time traffic updates. I also use Google Maps on my Treo for on-the-go driving directions without a GPS.

Weather.com. For thousands of cities worldwide,Weather.com lets see how local weather will affect outdoor activities; allergies; skin
conditions; even weddings.

YouTube. There are thousands of user-posted videos in the Travel & Places categories.

Travelistic.com. This is probably the most travel-focused video sharing sit, with over 5000 videos shot by and for travelers.

USAToday.com. The newspaper’s Travel site aggregates tons of tools and information for travelers, including MileTracker, a downloadable application for tracking frequent flier miles and MileMarker, a calculator that helps you determine how many miles you’ll need to fly from points A to B.

Town and Country Travel. The high-end travel magazine’s Web site features a useful directory of linked travel resources. Ask the
Concierge, an online feature in which concierges at renowned hotels aregrilled about what to do and see in their city, is worth a read. The
site recently launched, however, so you’re likely to find only a few Ask the Concierge entries.

Concierge.com. The Web site for Conde Nast Traveler features helpful tools, including a database of travel agents, destination video clips, and Suitcase, an interactive travel planning tool.

Have I missed your favorite Web travel-related sites? If so, share them with me at james_martin@pcworld.com. Please be sure to include your full name and location.

Fall’s Sleek Cell Phones: Our pictorial guide to this fall’s Apple iPhone competitors includes the Sprint Touch, manufactured by HTC. As its name implies, the Windows Mobile 6 Touch uses a touch screen to speed navigation. Though you can’t pinch or squeeze with the Touch interface, as you can with the iPhone, it does offer some cool
shortcuts.

More $200-ish Laptops: Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child initiative isn’t the only inexpensive portable in the news. Intel’s Classmate PC will cost about $200 to manufacture and will be aimed at least initially at school kids in Brazil, Nigeria, and some Asian countries (it won’t be sold to consumers). Asus’s Eee PC, now available for preorder, costs $260 to $400.

How to Remove Craplets: Craplets are those unwanted programs and utilities that come preinstalled on many consumer PCs. They hog hard drive space and can slow your system. Among the 20 (mostly free)downloads you can’t live without isPC De-Crapifier, which will remove most if not all of those unwanted programs.

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Replace Facebook Using Open Social Tools

November 1, 2007

With a little savvy, anyone can create a page that hosts all of the essential stuff one would find on a Facebook profile that can be set up with the same plug-and-play ease. You’ll have to store all of your photos, videos, and contacts elsewhere, but at least you’ll be able to get to your stuff.

Start by setting up a blog. Say what’s on your mind. Unlike your blog on Facebook or MySpace, everyone will be able to read it.

From there, you can pull in your photos from Flickr or Zooomr, show off your impeccible musical tastes hosted at iLike or Last.fm, share your favorite web bookmarks from del.icio.us or Ma.gnolia and put up a list of your most recent reads using Shelfari or LibraryThing.

All of these services have open APIs, making it easy for third-party developers to build widgets for displaying public data stored there. As a result, many such tools exist.

Need to keep up to date with your friend’s activities? Pull in a feed from their blog or from their Twitter page. The Upcoming event notification service has a dead simple code generator that will create a widget listing all of the events you plan to attend, as well as those your friends are interested in. Like to chat? Meebo offers an embeddable widget for AIM chatting, and Jaxtr does the same for SMS. You can even drop in a Skype button that lets your friends call you with one click.

One of Facebook’s unique features is the “everything in one place” feed service (Mini-feeds and News Feeds), but you can build such a thing yourself. Just create an account at one of the many feed re-mixing sites like Yahoo Pipes, FeedShake or FeedBlendr. Plug in all the feeds from the various sources you want to track and paste the resulting URL into a widget on your site. Voila.

The free blogging software from WordPress has all of the functionality to let you embed these widgets and RSS streams. WordPress also has a thriving plug-in ecosystem, so it’s likely a developer somewhere has done much of the dirty work for you. Alternatively, want to create your own Facebook? Elgg is an open source solution that embraces open standards; People Aggregator is a commercial solution, and Ning allows you to host networks on a central server. All have made a public commitment to opening up their data.

An even easier option is to use a sharable and customizable start page from Pageflakes or Protopage. Pageflakes in particular allows you to build a customized chunk of cyberspace that aggregates all of your desired content just like Facebook, which you can then publish publicly (Pageflakes calls this a “Pagecast”). And beyond a simple user registration, Pageflakes doesn’t lock in any of your personal data.

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Matchmaking for Investors and Entrepreneurs

November 1, 2007

Here are two things to check out on the funding front, particularly if you aren’t in tech.

First, a tool that could help democratize the funding hunt — IdeaCrossing.org. Think of it as matchmaking service between entrepreneurs and investors.

IdeaCrossing is open and free to anyone in the U.S. Entrepreneurs build a profile, and the system matches them to like-minded participating investors. Investors can see these profiles (the entrepreneur doesn’t get to right away) and reach out with time or money.

The site is still in beta with about 1,000 users. It needs critical mass to really work, but is a good idea that could help tap pockets of money in more regions.

It’s also getting easier for nontech companies to get on angels’ radar. More are broadening into retail, real estate and consumer products to appease members with nontech backgrounds.

Some groups are very specific. The founder of IdeaCrossing, a Cleveland nonprofit called JumpStart Inc., invests only in companies that bring jobs to northeast Ohio. One group, 12 Angels Investment Group, invests in firms that help prevent or treat addictions. Others, are funding women- or minority-led firms or ones with a social or environmental bent.

If you know of specific angel networks broadening their portfolios, let us know here.

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Google’s Response to Facebook: “Maka-Maka”

October 29, 2007

By Erick Schonfeld

Google may have lost the bidding war to invest in Facebook, but it is preparing its own major assault on the social networking scene. It goes by the codename “Maka-Maka” inside the Googleplex (or, perhaps, “Makamaka”).

Maka-Maka encompasses Google’s grand plan to build a social layer across all of its applications. Some details about Maka-Maka have already leaked out, particularly how Google plans to use the feed engine that powers Google Reader (known internally as Reactor) to create “activity streams” for other applications akin to Facebook’s news and mini feeds. But Maka-Maka goes well beyond that.

Maka-Maka will be unveiled in stages. The first peek will come in early November. As we reported previously, Google is planning to “out open” Facebook with a new set of APIs that developers can use to build apps for its social network Orkut, iGoogle, and eventually other applications as well. To recap what we wrote earlier:

Google will announce a new set of APIs on November 5 that will allow developers to leverage Google’s social graph data. They’ll start with Orkut and iGoogle (Google’s personalized home page), and expand from there to include Gmail, Google Talk and other Google services over time.

On November 5 we’ll likely see third party iGoogle gadgets that leverage Orkut’s social graph information – the most basic implementation of what Google is planning. . . . Google is also considering allowing third parties to join the party at the other end of the platform – meaning other social networks (think Bebo, Friendster, Twitter, Digg and thousands of others) to give access to their user data to developers through those same APIs.

We’ve now learned that the original November 5 date Google is shooting for may be delayed. “They need more time,” says one outside developer working on the project. “It is a challenge for them,” confirms another. Still, the expectation right now is that some announcement will be made the week of November 5 (perhaps the 8th or the 9th), and will most likely be limited to Google’s existing social network, Orkut. The APIs will be announced, along with as many as 50 partners that have created applications on top of the APIs. (Most of the top app developers for Facebook will be included—think RockYou, Slide, iLike, SocialMedia, etc.—and a few new ones as well).

All eyes will be on Google, but don’t expect anything too earth-shattering straight out of the gate. Many of these apps will be copycats of what is already available on Facebook (just as the very first apps on Facebook were ported over from other parts of the Web). This first go-round, Google will just be trying to match Facebook’s ante. Remember, even on Facebook, the best apps didn’t emerge on Day One. And now Facebook has a six-month lead.

The bigger challenge for Google in the U.S. is Orkut itself. While there may be 24.6 million monthly visitors to Orkut worldwide, only 500,000 of those are here in the U.S., according to comScore. Cool social apps aren’t much good if none of your friends use them.

That’s where the bigger plan for Maka-Maka comes into play. Maka-Maka is very strategic for Google. Responsibility for it goes all the way up to Jeff Huber, the VP of engineering in charge of all of Google’s apps. Huber is on record as saying that the way Google plans to compete is by using the Web as the platform instead of trying to lock developers into Google’s own platform. One way it will do that from the start is by creating two-way APIs so that any app created for Google can be taken to other Websites. (Whether this will extend to actual user profile data within Orkut or elsewhere inside Google remains to be seen because of privacy issues, but the apps themselves will be portable). And data from other social sites will be able to be imported into Google’s social apps as well.

The bigger vision is to combine all of Google’s apps and services through Maka-Maka. Google already has so much data on you, depending on how many Google apps you already use. It just needs to bring everything together. Your contacts are in Gmail. Your feeds are in Google Reader. Your IM buddy list is in Gtalk. Your upcoming events are in Google Calendar. Your widgets are in iGoogle. And don’t forget about your search history. Overtime, Google will connect all of these together in different ways, along with data about you from other social services across the Web, and give developers access to the social layer tying all of these apps together underneath. The real killer app for Google is not to turn Orkut into a Facebook clone. It is to turn every Google app into a social application without you even noticing that you’ve joined yet another social network.

Source: TechCrunch.com


Hulu.com Launches Private Beta, Makes Very Good First Impressions

October 29, 2007

News Corp. and NBC Universal are certainly banking on it.

After seven months of preparations, delays and wisecracks about its quirky name, the two companies are finally lifting the veil Monday on their new Internet video service, Hulu.

Hulu programming will begin appearing Monday at the Web sites of its distribution partners, such as News Corp.’s MySpace, Yahoo!, Time Warner portal AOL, Microsoft site MSN and Comcast.

And Hulu.com, which will have additional features that won’t be available at the partner sites, is launching a private beta test Monday. The beta will start with a few thousand users who register their e-mail addresses at the site and will gradually expand its reach in the coming months.

It’s the latest and most ambitious effort by the television industry to reach viewers online. But in some respects, it’s also the most perplexing.

In addition to distributing content at leading portal sites, Hulu is also establishing a brand-new destination site at Hulu.com – not a simple task in an increasingly crowded online video market. Moreover, it will be competing for traffic with its owners’ other Internet properties, such as Fox.com and NBC.com.

Finally, Hulu will be run as a joint venture between two hard-nosed competitors, raising inevitable questions about whether or how News Corp. and NBC Universal, which is owned by General Electric, will play nice with each other.

But such concerns don’t appear to bother private-equity firm Providence Equity Partners, which has just invested $100 million in Hulu. And Hulu Chief Executive Jason Kilar, a former senior executive at Amazon.com, downplayed potential worries about the JV dynamic.

“This could not happen without their commitment,” Kilar said. “I feel very proud to say how they’ve come together.”

Hulu provides a vivid illustration of how much TV network attitudes have changed – and not changed – since YouTube crash-landed on the entertainment landscape two years ago.

While the networks were initially hesitant about making their programming available online, Fox, NBC, CBS, Disney’s ABC and Viacom all do so today to varying degrees. Hulu represents the latest step in these efforts.

Hulu and its distribution partners will feature streaming video of full-length prime-time programming and clips from Fox and NBC, as well as content from sibling networks such as Bravo, Sci Fi, FX and Fuel TV and USA Network. CNET, E! Entertainment Television and Sundance Channel will also provide programming.

All Hulu content, including movies, will be viewable free of charge and supported by advertising. Full-length TV shows and movies will open with a “brought to you by” title card that will appear for several seconds. Once the programming gets under way, a banner ad will rest at the top of the screen unless a viewer chooses the full-screen video option. In addition, about two minutes of video advertising will be inserted every 22 minutes or so.Clips and other short-form video will also feature a banner ad at the top of the screen, as well as overlay ads that will periodically appear at the bottom of the screen but won’t interrupt the flow of the programming. The overlay ads can be clicked for more information about the sponsor.

Hulu.com will have extra features not initially available at its distribution partners’ sites, including the ability to e-mail links to full episodes and whatever portion of an episode a viewer chooses to share.

Hulu.com visitors will also be able to embed full episodes and clips on their own Web sites and blogs. Embedded programming will retain all advertising. It’s a somewhat daring move, given the potential squeamishness that advertisers may feel about where their marketing messages will end up appearing.

All of these features illustrate how eager News Corp. and NBC are to reach viewers online. But in other ways, Hulu also demonstrates the degree to which the companies want to retain control over how consumers view and make use of their content.

For instance, contrary to what News Corp. and NBC indicated when they first announced their plans in March, Hulu won’t enable viewers to create mashups of its programming. Nor will it accept uploads of user-generated videos. Instead, Hulu has assigned part of its team to create clips and video “montages” for users.

Why impose such restrictions? “We’re very focused on premium content,” Hulu’s Kilar said.”We’re not seeking to have a user-generated content service. There are many other services out there. …We want to [break] new ground, as opposed to ground already being served by other companies.”

But shifting more power to consumers has been part of the core appeal of YouTube and other video sites. Differentiation from the competition is fine, but when the competition is eating your lunch in terms of traffic, taking a page from their playbook probably wouldn’t hurt either.

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Hulu is still a joint venture exclusively between NBC Universal and News Corporation. It exists as a website through which users can stream a collection of TV shows, movies, and short clips on-demand for free without any limits on how many times you can view each video. Hulu also exists as a distribution network of premium content for several partner websites – AOL, MSN, MySpace, Comcast, and Yahoo – that will display Hulu’s videos for free but in their own branded players. In addition to these partnerships, users themselves form a viral distribution network of sorts since Hulu allows its videos to be embedded in any website and shared via email. Hulu makes money in all cases from advertising, which it displays in and around the videos it serves.

A couple of things that Hulu is not: a repository of user generated content like YouTube or a download service like iTunes Store. All of the video on Hulu is premium content and users don’t have access to any uploading capabilities. TV shows and movies can only be streamed through Hulu or one of its partners’ Flash players, not downloaded to your desktop or portable media player. While it’s understandable that NBC and News Corp. want to focus exclusively on premium content, it’s a shame that we can’t (yet) download videos from Hulu (either in an ad-supported format or for a fee). Perhaps this is something to look for in the future, although company representatives were mum on whether they had plans for it.

As for the content on Hulu, TV shows will come from Fox and NBC, and over fifteen cable channels including Bravo, E!, FX, SciFi, Sundance, and USA. Movies will come from Fox and Universal, and following a deal signed just this Friday, from Sony and MGM as well. Hulu says many of its short clips will come from independent content providers, and it’s also signing licensing deals with others such as Smithsonian and the WWE. Overall, Hulu’s collection is impressive and we can anticipate seeing it grow even more in the coming months. Representatives say that they will listen to consumer demand to determine which shows and movies to add next. Click here to view a full list of the videos currently in Hulu’s collection.

In terms of availability, Hulu as a website will not be available to the public for another few months. Its collection, however, will be rolled out on its partners’ websites over this coming week so we can expect to see most, if not all, of Hulu’s content on AOL, MSN, MySpace, Comcast, and Yahoo very soon. Just when particular videos will be available through Hulu – and how long we can expect them to stay on Hulu – will vary from video to video. However, as a general rule TV shows will be available on Hulu by midnight Hawaii time after they debut on normal television. As another general rule, Hulu will keep distributing TV shows until five weeks of newer episodes have passed, at which point older shows will presumably just disappear from the site.

This is Hulu’s greatest weakness. Try as it might, it has not yet escaped the programming mentality of broadcast television. Hulu still imposes a schedule of sorts on Web viewers, even if that schedule comes with a five-week window of flexibility. But on the Web, five weeks may not be enough. Appointment TV just doesn’t make sense in a medium where time slots are thrown out the window and the available inventory of videos is counted in the millions. Hulu may be limiting its appeal by not keeping all of its videos up indefinitely (who knows when a particular video clip could take off as the next viral hit?). It also will be interesting to see how this limit affects embedded TV shows, which may just stop functioning after too much time. Similarly, movies and short clips will be added and removed from the site in an undisclosed (or uncertain) manner, although Hulu reps say they will try to add movies that are in demand. Hulu will not only have new releases but older movies as well, and only ten movies will be available to start.

Now for the design and features of Hulu.com itself. First of all, the experience is entirely browser-based so there is no software to install beyond Flash player, which you probably already have. Hulu has done a good job keeping the user interface simple and highlighting the actual content of the site. The homepage highlights a given video and lists the most popular episodes, the most popular clips, and recently added videos. You can also search Hulu’s entire collection from the homepage. Other sections of the site list the available episodes for particular shows and let you browse videos by network/studio, alphabetical order, or popularity. On your user profile page, you can create a video playlist and check your viewing history. Both your viewing history and playlist can be shared via RSS which, in addition to user reviews that you can leave at the bottom of video pages, form pretty much the extent to which Hulu.com incorporates social features.

The videos themselves are streamed at either 480kbps or 700kbps depending on your bandwidth, and Hulu is working with Adobe to provide even higher resolutions through Flash Player 9.2 by the end of the year. Hulu’s video player sports all the basic features we see in embeddable players these days: sharing via email, embedding via HTML, video details, full screen, seeking, and volume. It also has buttons with which users can submit feedback directly to Hulu, pop the video out into its own window, darken the rest of the page for better viewing, and vote the video up or down. Perhaps the coolest feature of the player is the ability to select just a segment of the video to share with friends or embed on your website. Embedded videos have fewer features, but users can still share and embed videos that have already been embedded, which should really help to spread Hulu’s videos virally (and make it less popular to embed low-quality versions hosted on YouTube). But, again, if the embedded video expires or is replaced with new content that the embedder did not choose, that could end up backfiring on Hulu.

Finally, some important information about how Hulu plans to advertise. Advertising will be much less intrusive than on actual television. Ads will be served in a variety of ways: banners that display alongside videos, text blurbs that overlay the bottom of videos, and in-video clips that play before, within, and after videos. Shorter videos will tend to have overlays and banner ads, whereas longer videos will tend to play in-video commercials. Hulu says that for longer videos, the total playback time dedicated to advertisements will be drastically lowered, perhaps constituting only 25% of the time you’d spend watching ads on TV. Thus, for every 30 minutes of video, you may only see 2 minutes of ads, whereas on TV you would see 8 minutes. If this is true, then Hulu will certainly be more consumer-friendly than TV. However, that is still probably more commercials than people are used to when watching video on the Web.

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Start-up: Social Services

October 29, 2007

By NEIL BARNETT

Internet social networks, in the popular imagination, are refuges for geeks who seldom see the light of day and enjoy a purely theoretical romantic life. But iWiW, the remarkably popular Hungarian online network, is surprisingly rooted in what geeks call “offline” reality.

Tamas, a 28-year-old lawyer, explains how iWiW oils the wheels of his personal life: “It’s just like a database for your social life,” he says. “So, for example, I met this girl in a bar last year, and I remembered her name but didn’t get her number. Before iWiW I would have had a problem, but all I had to do was search for her name, select the account with her picture, and send a connection query. Now she’s my girlfriend!” iWiW (which stands for International Who is Who) supposedly disdains such opportunistic tactics, but the fact is that much of its success rests on just such uses. With 1.6 million members out of a population of 10 million, if you’re a young, social and computer-literate Hungarian, you’re almost certainly a member.

It was perhaps this opportunity to have almost universal access to the country’s most sought-after consumers that prompted T-Online, a part of Deutsche Telekom, to pay almost €4m for iWiW in April 2006. The deal made the founders, led by Zsolt Várady, pretty well-off overnight – although they must now be wondering if they could have held out for more, given the speed with which T-Online has increased the operation’s revenue from online advertising.

“We started the network in 2002. At that time it had no name; it was just an IP address where friends could connect. We had no cash, we used old computers and we worked from home,” says Márton Szabó, another founder, who is now managing director of iWiW. Rather than being a scheme aimed at making millions, iWiW owes its existence to a “sociometric survey” of people’s social habits, which revealed that the internet could improve social dynamics. As membership snowballed to 20,000 in the first six months, the founders brought in a local software firm.

iWiW remains different from giants like MySpace and Facebook. If you want to join, you need to be invited. As Szabó says: “iWiW is a social network, whereas MySpace is really a content network. Our network mirrors real social relationships; it’s much more intimate.” Here iWiW bears a resemblance to aSmallWorld.net, the network for the young, international and rich.

iWiW, then, could be among the first of a generation of online networks that connect people to those they are already connected to in some way, rather than exposing them further to the randomness of the net. Only now is this ethos starting to bear fruit on the bottom line.

In 2005 iWiW turned over just €20,000 and made no profit. Under T-Online it turned over nearly €900,000 revenue and made a profit, the vastly increased revenue stream owing everything to a strictly commercial approach to web advertising adopted by T-Online. How that potential business develops in the future is anyone’s guess, but it proves the old maxim that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know – as they say in Hungary.

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Site Linking Global Buyers, China Factories, Plans IPO

October 23, 2007

A few years ago, Jane Ivanov of Indianapolis was pregnant for the first time and frustrated. Amid the array of clothing available to expectant women, there was one thing she couldn’t find: sexy lingerie. Sensing an opportunity, the business-school graduate and her husband pooled $50,000 from their savings and credit-card borrowings to start a maternity-lingerie brand called Eve Alexander. All she needed was the manufacturer.For that, she turned to Alibaba.com, then a little-known Chinese Web site that has become a significant gateway for global trade. On the site, which connects small manufacturers in China and elsewhere with potential customers, Ms. Ivanov found a supplier in Hong Kong that could make the bras she wanted.

Now, she spends her days taking care of her two children and her nights fulfilling hundreds of catalog orders and arranging shipments to retailers, including more than 100 maternity boutiques, hospitals and online stores, most recently Target.com.

For almost a decade, Alibaba.com Corp., led by founder Jack Ma, has been positioning itself at the virtual nexus between China’s manufacturing juggernaut and buyers around the world who want its low-cost goods. Charging manufacturers to promote their products and services to customers on its site with English-language listings, it now dominates China’s business-to-business market. World-wide, it is the most visited import/export site, according to Web-site tracker Alexa.com. Alibaba is about to take a major new step.

Today, Alibaba Group, its parent company, which is 39%-owned by Yahoo Inc., is expected to officially announce the initial public offering of Alibaba.com to Hong Kong retail investors. The IPO is expected to be the biggest ever by a Chinese Internet company, raising as much as $1.3 billion, with trading in Hong Kong set to begin early next month. With a collection of online businesses, Alibaba Group has made headlines as one of the few Chinese Internet companies with a global profile.

Mr. Ma has expanded Alibaba Group to include Taobao.com, an online auction site that has overtaken eBay Inc. as the market-share leader in China, and online payment and software operations. Two recent additions to the group are Alimama, an online marketplace for Web publishers and advertisers, and Koubei, a classifieds site of which Alibaba Group owns 53%. These other operations aren’t part of the IPO.

In 2005, Yahoo paid $1 billion for its stake in Alibaba, and it turned over control of Yahoo’s Chinese operations to Mr. Ma.

Based in the eastern city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai, Alibaba.com gets the bulk of its revenue from small and midsize Chinese manufacturers who pay to join the site. The company helps them post listings that include descriptions of their products, contact information and, in some cases, videos showcasing the suppliers’ factories. Buyers also can post their requests for products in the “buying leads” section. Yu Xuehui, owner of heater manufacturer Ningbo Jasun Electrical Appliance Co., says Alibaba helped take his business to a new level. While he had to rely on outside firms to sell his products in the past, and mostly did domestic orders, he now has relationships with clients around the world. “I knew I wanted to export but had nowhere to start,” Mr. Yu says. Since joining the site six years ago, he says his annual revenue has increased by $1.3 million.

According to a copy of the preliminary IPO prospectus reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Alibaba’s revenue in the year’s first half was 957.72 million yuan ($127.6 million), 61% more than the same period last year. It has about 24.6 million registered users, and, since it began charging for some services a few years ago, has amassed more than 255,000 paying members. Net profit this year is expected to more than triple, to $83 million.

But as Alibaba has expanded, so has its exposure to problems from counterfeiting to product safety. In its preliminary prospectus, Alibaba acknowledges that in providing a way for importers and manufacturers to communicate online, it risks listing tainted products and counterfeits. “We anticipate . . . that certain items listed on our marketplaces infringe third-party [intellectual property] rights or that suppliers list products and services that are substandard or potentially controversial,” it says.

The nonprofit International Anticounterfeiting Coalition says it considers Alibaba to be a platform for counterfeits. One of its members, Rob Holmes, CEO of IPCybercrime.com LLC, a private investigator that specializes in helping brand owners identify violations of intellectual-property rights, says Alibaba is “a major thorn in the side” of his clients. Manufacturers peddling counterfeit products use the “buying leads” section as a way to find customers, Mr. Holmes says.

Another problem: Some suppliers who have legitimate contracts with apparel brands covertly produce unauthorized lots of the products and sell them on Alibaba, Mr. Holmes says. “I would say about a third of the product on Alibaba is gray market, easily,” he says.

The company declined to comment because it is in the quiet period before its IPO. But Alibaba says on its Web site that it regularly cooperates with intellectual-property-rights owners, industry associations and government agencies to fight against violators. ” Alibaba.com respects intellectual property rights and we expect our users to do the same,” the statement says. In general, it is the responsibility of Alibaba users, and not the company itself, to comply with intellectual-property-rights laws. According to a Goldman Sachs report, the company takes down nearly 100 listings per month in response to patent and copyright complaints. Goldman is a lead underwriter of the IPO, along with Morgan Stanley.

Alibaba was founded in 1999 by Mr. Ma, a former English teacher from Hangzhou, and the company has grown to more than 6,000 employees.

Thousands of small- and midsize business owners recently came to a gathering called Alifest, an annual bazaar arranged by Alibaba to bring its clients together. Sebastien Breteau, CEO of Asia Inspection, says he lists his services on Alibaba.com so that buyers can pay to have their manufacturers inspected for safety and compliance or for quality control.

Meanwhile, Ms. Ivanov is expanding her brand to include other maternity apparel. “Because of Alibaba, housewives can make something of themselves,” she says.


Current.TV Relaunches as Current.com

October 22, 2007

What started out as an online community for aspiring and up-and-coming filmmakers to gain exposure and network with each other by creating videos on topical issues has evolved into a broader, user-generated approach to current events for tech savvy 18- to 34-year-olds.

Robin Sloan, Current’s online-product strategist, attributed the site’s new identity to a larger gap that still can be filled in news reaching the young/college demo. “If you look at CNN on TV, the median age is 50 or 60,” she said. “There are plenty of places where young people don’t feel the content is interesting or relevant to them.”

Spotty traffic
The new Current.com also could help the network make some waves in traffic, which has been spotty in the past year. Current.TV averaged 151,000 unique visits a month from September 2006 to September 2007, according to ComScore, obviously a far cry from the 26 million who regularly visit CNN.com but a number that could be expanded significantly through a content channel on Facebook, which will launch later this month.

Not that the TV channel is being marginalized in the wake of the new web remodel. “Seventy percent of our TV viewers have their laptops open while they’re watching, so we can present them with much more information so they don’t have to go to Google,” said Joanne Dale Earl, president-new media at Current. “More than 30% of our viewers purchased something they saw on Current, so we saw that as a way to build a brand extension online.”

Enter Current’s unique ad model. Since its inception, Current has been accepting VCAMs, or viewer-created ad messages, in which major brands ranging from Mountain Dew to Toyota to Sony hold viewer contests to see who can craft the best commercials around their products. Although 30% of all VCAMs make it on-air, Mr. Sloan said they’ve become even larger traffic generators online.

“We know people think of and enjoy them as content, but VCAMs are also what get us traction online,” Mr. Sloan said. “Now we can program them into the home-page stream to give them greater exposure. Everything you do here is fair game for TV.”

No banner ads
As a result, the site does not accept banner ads, nor does it follow the traditional news-pyramid model on its home page. For example, a Nokia contest for the best user-generated images can reside next to a story on the latest developments in Burma or stem-cell research.

“It’s not that young people dislike ads and advertising,” Ms. Earl said. “On Current, it just might take the form of a VCAM or different kinds of ad units, like a personalized network or a topic page. We can work with sponsors on creating a tent pole with sponsorship opportunities against our core applications.”

L’Oreal recently partnered with Current.TV to sponsor its own page of male-themed videos to promote a line of men’s hair-treatment products. Not only did the marketer reach a targeted, coveted audience of young men, Ms. Earl said, the goal was to help L’Oreal learn about the consumer base for future campaigns through the feedback the user-generated ads drew online.

What next?
As the new Current.com unspools, Ms. Earl and Mr. Sloan are already thinking about the next places to take the user-generated model that’s already evolved in its short two-year history.

“It’s perfect for mobile, especially since we own all the content,” Ms. Earl said. “It’s a very specific community, so a lot of the traffic will come from organic marketing. Wherever the demo is, we want to be there.”

Source:


eBay’s Chaos Theory

October 22, 2007

By: Chuck Salter

It was early in 2006, and Matt Carey, the new CTO of eBay, was attending his first focus group about the online shopping site. It was a memorable experience, to say the least. “It’s hard to use,” complained a longtime customer. She had been collecting antique glass on eBay for years. But lately, the treasure hunt was more frustrating than fun. “I get lost,” she said. “I can’t get back to my search results. I have to go all the way out and start over.”

“This is not good,” Carey thought to himself. This particular buyer was, as he puts it, a “dyed-in-the-wool, right-down-the-center customer.” What she was describing is known by the pejorative “pogo sticking.” To Carey, who had just moved to eBay after 20 years at Wal-Mart, it was the equivalent of “having customers not able to shop in your store because they can’t find the aisles.”

It is not news that eBay has lost the magic that made it an Internet darling a few years back. After peaking at $59 a share in late 2004, the company’s stock plunged to $23 two years later. CEO Meg Whitman may boast about the company’s latest stats–record number of users, revenue, and items listed for sale–but the fact is that the rate of growth at the company is slowing. EBay has tried to jolt itself by investing as much as $4 billion in Skype (which has yet to pay off) and $1.5 billion in PayPal (which has been far more successful). Yet 70% of revenue still comes from the core marketplace business. And as Carey recognized, the weakness there has become impossible to ignore.

How troubling is the slowdown? Despite the double-digit increase in listings and gross merchandise sales that the company reported last year, both of these key indicators have steadily decelerated over the past three years. In 2006, gross merchandise sales grew by less than 20%, the smallest rate ever. More troubling still, the number of active users–those who bid, bought, or listed at least once in the previous year–rose by only 14%, the slowest rate since 2001.

EBay is responding with a whole new strategic gamble–one some company insiders say is its most ambitious ever. The mastermind is John Donahoe, 47, whom Whitman brought aboard three years ago and installed as president of eBay Marketplaces (and as her heir apparent). His bold stroke–what he calls “our number-one strategic priority”–is recasting the site to focus primarily on buyers, not sellers.

As obvious as this realignment might seem, it is a sea change for an outfit that long regarded sellers as its main customers; some 1.4 million vendors rely on the operation for their primary or secondary income.

Donahoe’s key partner is Carey, 42, who is charged with making the buying experience efficient and fun again. Improving one of the Web’s most heavily trafficked sites without disturbing its global–and vocal–sellers’ network and its millions of loyal buyers is a challenge that Carey compares to a “four-wall expansion” at Wal-Mart: turning a standard store into a supercenter without disrupting day-to-day operations.

The good news is there are signs of progress. Wall Street has noticed–the stock has gone up by about $10 a share since its low a year ago. Still, shares remain about 40% below their high, and the ultimate outcome of this effort to revive eBay’s growth is in doubt.

“This is definitely an inflection point,” says Robert Peck, an analyst with Bear Stearns. As Jeff King, eBay’s senior director of product search (what eBay calls “finding”), puts it: “This is our biggest bet.”

Twelve years after a pony-tailed programmer named Pierre Omidyar built an unfussy auction Web site one Labor Day weekend, it’s easy to forget how swiftly and thoroughly eBay changed the online-shopping game. Within four years, customers had listed 130 million items and sold nearly $3 billion worth, giving rise to a new type of entrepreneur, the at-home eBay retailer. The site’s charm lay in the fact that the merchandise was utterly unpredictable, and in the way that auctions introduced an element of competition. The initial hodgepodge of obscure collectibles and discontinued items at bargain prices was joined by hard-to-find new products and pricey cars and jewelry. Part flea market, part Mall of America–eBay chalked up $52.5 billion in total sales last year, more than the sales of Amazon, Apple, and Nike combined. There’s still nothing else like it in size and breadth.

From the beginning, the strategy was to amass an unrivaled array of goods that would attract buyers. It worked well. In fact, as Donahoe now admits, it worked too well. The site became bloated and unwieldy. At any given point, it features about 100 million items for sale, with nearly 7 million new listings every day. “EBay’s abundance was one of its attractions,” Donahoe says. “But if you type in ‘BlackBerry’ and get 23,000 search results, it’s not that helpful.” (His offhand math is not far off the mark: A search in September produced 3,911 phones and PDAs, and 17,771 accessories.)

Donahoe is sitting in the employee cafeteria at eBay North, one of two corporate campuses in the San Jose area, in early September. It’s just after 8 a.m. The campus is coming to life, the parking lot starting to fill. Donahoe is already in midday form after his 6 a.m. Pilates class in the company gym. In a sense, he’s trying to do for eBay Marketplaces what Pilates does for his lanky 6-foot-5 frame: improve its flexibility. “This is not a one-time project,” he says of the drive to revamp the buyer experience. “We’ll make big changes over the next couple of years and keep iterating and innovating.”

Whitman and Donahoe worked together in the 1980s in the San Francisco office of Bain & Co.; Donahoe stayed and eventually became Bain’s worldwide managing director. In many ways, he says, eBay has been going through a natural evolution, from a wildly successful startup to a public company with global reach to, well, a maturing business. “Early on it created a market,” he says. “Now we have competition on all sides.”

Today, the company’s homegrown vendors can sell through their own Web sites, as well as channels such as Amazon.com and Overstock.com. Shoppers have even more online options. A bargain is only a Google search away, and brick-and-mortar retailers have worked hard to upgrade the shopping experience on their sites with virtual assistants, gift registries, product videos, customer reviews, and liberal return policies.

Once an e-commerce innovator, eBay fell behind. “We were shackled by our own success,” says Eric Billingsley, who runs the engineering side of the finding operation. “When the company was growing 80% or 120% year over year, the mind-set was, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’?”

“The buying experience hasn’t changed dramatically since 1999, compared with the rest of the Internet,” says Scot Wingo, president and CEO of ChannelAdvisor, which makes software to automate everything from auctions to shipping for sellers on eBay and other sites. “The highway is now crowded, and others are going faster.”

Historically, eBay made sellers the priority for a very good reason: They generate revenue. Sellers are the ones who pay eBay fees for listing an item, posting a photo, even processing a payment through PayPal, which eBay bought in 2002. But Donahoe realized that eBay had to stimulate shopping, and to do that, the company needed technology designed around the buyers’ needs. In late 2005, Donahoe began looking to hire a new CTO. Given the site’s size and complexity, there weren’t many candidates with the appropriate experience.

Then he met Matt Carey. Carey didn’t know much about eBay–in fact, he had never used the site–but he had helped build and oversee the technical infrastructure behind the world’s largest retailer, one of the most data-centric businesses on the planet. In two decades at Wal-Mart, he had experienced firsthand both unprecedented growth and the challenges of maturation. A half-hour into the interview, Donahoe excused himself and called a colleague: “We have to have this guy.”

Carey inherited a catastrophe. Shortly after he arrived in San Jose in December 2005, the site’s core listings, largely auctions, and those for its 600,000 individual stores were combined for the first time–a blunder no one now takes credit for. Previously when you typed in, say, “Sony PlayStation,” the search engine combed through only the core listings. To see the other merchandise, you had to surf over to the eBay Stores site and do a separate search or browse the stores. The goal of combining the entries was to show a broader mix of inventory on a single search; the effect was to give more exposure to the store products. The new setup was rolled out with no customer testing.

Within weeks, nearly every measure of eBay’s business was down. Bids. Return visits. The conversion rate, or percentage of listings sold. Average sales price.

In hindsight, it’s hard to understand why no one at eBay foresaw what would happen. Because eBay charges less for store listings than core auction listings, once they all appeared in a single search, many sellers shifted their inventory to save on fees. Suddenly, store merchandise, which tends to be pricier, was crowding out the auctions–and the bargains. Auctions bottomed out at just 17% of total listings, yet they still accounted for 91% of sales.

The misstep triggered headlines, a falling stock price, and pointed questions from analysts. Whitman explained repeatedly that the marketplace was out of balance. In March 2006, eBay rolled back the program. Finally, in August the company used its only real lever: It raised fees for store listings.

That fiasco became the catalyst for overhauling the buyer experience. Carey asked for a detailed report: When were shoppers abandoning the site? How much were they scrolling through the new search results? He discovered that there was no mechanism to create such a report. It took “many, many, many hours and days and weeks,” he says, to unravel exactly what customers were doing. It turned out that eBay collected all sorts of data about transactions–“It knew that business like the back of its hand,” Carey says–but little related to shopping. “I said, ‘We got gaps in the data. We got holes,'” he recalls. And his mission was to plug them.

Carey grew up in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where his father operated the family’s furniture-and-appliance store. It was located in a four-story building, the tallest in town. As a boy, he dusted furniture in the showroom and rode the elevator for fun. As a teenager, he delivered air-conditioners, sold bedroom suites, repaired TVs. Meanwhile, his mother was working for IBM in information systems. “When we were young, she used to take me and my brother to the data center, and we’d sleep on the floor in her office while she wrote programs on punch cards,” Carey says.

After graduating from Oklahoma State University, he went to work for Wal-Mart as a programmer trainee, combining his retail and tech know-how. On his first day, he wrote a program automating a sales report for Sam Walton about the Sam’s Club stores–all 12 of them. The IT department was small enough, with only 300 or so employees, that he met Wal-Mart’s CIO early on. “I think I’m going to want to do your job one day,” Carey told him.

The CIO invited the 24-year-old to work alongside him for six months and learn the ropes. Carey eventually had a hand in developing virtually all of Wal-Mart’s major systems, from software that analyzed every inch of shelf space to programs that identified inefficiencies in the company’s global supply chain. “The lesson there was, it’s all in the data,” he says. “If you start with the lowest level of detail, you can answer any question about the business.”

He’d watched from Bentonville, Arkansas, over the years as colleagues left for tech companies like Amazon and Dell, and when eBay came calling, he was intrigued. Still, leaving the only employer he’d ever had was terrifying. “You’ve got no idea how hard that was,” he drawls. “No idea.”

Before moving to San Jose, Carey put the family’s dining room set up for auction on eBay. It sold within days. “A retired couple in Hot Springs drove in with a truck and picked it up,” he says. “I thought, Wow, that’s $1,000, man! This is totally powerful.”

He got his first taste of the eBay culture on day one. Everyone works in cubicles, but executives get individual conference rooms, decorated in a theme their colleagues pick out: Blondie for Whitman. Dennis the Menace for Donahoe. And Elmer Fudd for Carey, an avid hunter. Seeing his conference room for the first time–with two double-barrel toy shotguns mounted on the wall, plus a couple of comic-book covers–he remembers thinking, “Okaaay. Am I in the wrong room?”

Carey set about creating what he calls a “culture of analytics,” particularly around buyers and product development. More experimenting, more testing, more data. “I want to eliminate feelings and get down to true math,” he says. In just 10 months, his team built a faster and more flexible technology platform. His developers also began testing applications on small randomly selected samples of the eBay population (typically 1% or 2%).

In the old eBay, one former engineer had so many failed launches that he had earned the unfortunate nickname the Rollback King. Now, if a new feature doesn’t improve buyer engagement–a new metric, in which return visits, bidding, buying, and other activities are weighted–it doesn’t graduate from trials to reach a broader audience. “In a Darwinian sense,” says Billingsley, one of eBay’s top developers, “to be a survivor, something has to keep producing.”

The evolution of the eBay search engine is continuing, driven by the need to boost browsing and sales. One step is to give shoppers more relevant information, more rapidly. Until recently, the search engine relied on sellers’ product descriptions. When you typed in the name of a product or brand, the software looked for those words in the sellers’ 55-word listings. The results were then ranked according to the closing date of the auctions. If you entered “John Deere,” you could get a listing for a John Deere tractor or a set of John Deere sheets. By eBay’s definition, both were equally relevant.

Playing catch-up with other consumer-oriented sites, the company is now applying the “wisdom of crowds” to create a new feature called “best match.” Every click on the site is measured; the outcome of every one of the 2,600 searches per second is tracked to determine what leads shoppers to bid or to buy. If you submit “John Deere” today, you’ll see the John Deere products that most previous shoppers purchased. “We get flack that we’re trying to control search, but we’re letting the buyers vote with their clicks and say what’s relevant,” says search-meister King. “It’s a big, big, big change for us.”

Narrowing even the most relevant search by price or brand or size has been a particular problem for eBay. Unlike other retail sites that sell a set inventory, eBay has to index and classify a constantly changing universe of whatever people are selling. So where Apple.com or Bananarepublic.com has you pick from predetermined price options, for example, one new eBay feature lets you set your own price range. The site also steers buyers to those sellers with the most positive feedback.

EBay is launching a “snapshot view” in certain categories in time for the holidays; instead of the usual prominent text and thumbnail images, a larger image pops up as you scroll over the picture of a sweater or a vase. It’s the sort of functionality online shoppers have come to expect. “If they’re shopping for clothes,” says King, “they’re comparing us to Nordstrom now.”

What about serendipity–that item you weren’t looking for but are delighted to discover? EBay staffers talk about serendipity all the time. So at the bottom of the list of matches are a few outliers. “If we got rid of cheetah iPod covers, we’d lose a little of eBay,” King says.

What does all this mean for the sellers? Chris Hinze, who turned to eBay when asthma made him abandon his auto-mechanic business, is enthusiastic. Working out of his home in Portland, Connecticut, the 46-year-old refurbishes fixtures bought wholesale into what he calls “power showerheads” with dramatically more water flow. He’s an eBay PowerSeller, meaning his sales amount to at least $1,000 a month and buyers give him high feedback scores.

Hinze attended eBay Live, the annual gathering of thousands of sellers, for the first time this past summer. After one session, he approached King and mentioned that searches for “shower heads” and “showerheads” produced significantly different results. Back in San Jose, King had his team add the terms to their “stemming” project, which combines related words in the finding system. The result: a flood of customers for Hinze’s Superpowershower. He sold three months’ worth of merchandise in three weeks. “Crazy, huh?” he says.

It’s a good example of the power of eBay’s algorithms, both to steer shoppers toward what they’re looking for and to boost a small business 3,000 miles away. In essence, that was Omidyar’s original vision: linking strangers through a virtual transaction that served both parties well. An honest, efficient marketplace, he called it.

But tinkering with the search engine creates new winners and losers; some sellers bubble up, others disappear. No matter what, somebody’s unhappy, suspicious of favoritism, accusing eBay of tilting its playing field. Even minor tweaks can disrupt business for sellers who rely on automated software to manage hundreds or thousands of auctions. It’s all there in the often vitriolic discussion boards on the site.

The biggest question facing eBay today is whether the totality of the changes that Donahoe and Carey are implementing can do for eBay and its millions of sellers what the “showerhead”/”shower head” fix has done for Hinze.

Therein lies eBay’s central conundrum. “We don’t pretend to have all the answers,” says Donahoe. “We’re doing things that will upset some people. But we’re not just listening to the average noise. We’re sharply focused on what our buyers want and need.” Ultimately, the new strategy is a risk, but it’s one that eBay can’t afford not to take. Faced with the classic growth-company problem, it’s betting that it can regain momentum by becoming more like mainstream retailers while still offering stuff you can’t find anywhere else (Michael Vick’s purported handwritten notes for his televised apology in August: $10,200).

The buyers will decide if eBay made the right move. If they shop the site more regularly and purchase more Nintendo Wii consoles and Coach bags and iPhones and Elmer Fudd comics and antique glass, the sellers will applaud the changes. At eBay, there’s little doubt what’s at stake. “If we don’t change, we get marginalized,” says Carey. “We can’t let that happen.”

Employees, who seem to take pride in running a global democratic marketplace, profess a greater sense of mission. “We haven’t even released an eighth of what we’ve done,” says Billingsley. “That’s what excites me. It hasn’t even begun.” Customized pages are in the works. More social-commerce features. An eBay to Go widget with your favorite auction listings to post on your Web site or your MySpace page, complete with a clock to remind you to bid before it’s too late. It all sounds good.

But is it enough? Even eBay’s revamped search engine can’t find the answer.

Source: Fast Company


Tumblr – Reviewed by PC Magazine

October 22, 2007

Situated somewhere between super-lightweight microblogging sites like Twitter and full-fledged blogging services like Vox, Tumblr gives you a very easy way to disseminate your thoughts, links, pictures, and videos quickly and in a pleasing format.

Good-looking, clean, easy-to-use interface. Prebuilt page themes. Mobile posting aannd viewing. Support for video and several types of feeds.

Help could be better. No comment feature.

More of a “miniblog” than a microblog, Tumblr offers some of the instant gratification of Twitter and some of the richer formatting and media capabilities available in standard blogging services such as Blogger, LiveJournal, or Vox. Tumblr goes deeper than true microblog sites, adding richer goodies such as photos, video support, and feeds. With it you can create a “tumblelog,” which the company describes this way: “If blogs are journals, tumblelogs are scrapbooks.” These are usually full of prominently dated posts that are short on text and long on clipped pictures, video, quotations, and other Web artifacts. The archetypal example is Projectionist.

Tumblr combines the quick Web-posting and mobile-posting capabilities of Twitter with standard blog features such as a choice of page themes, rich-text formatting, and your own URL. Entries get their own pages, but they’re not longer than the post on the main page. These pages don’t have the comment capability you’d find on a fuller-fledged blogging service, so, if you’re looking for validation in the form of feedback, this isn’t the service for you. Unlike most microblogs, Tumblr doesn’t have a page dedicated to public posts, and the posting entry box isn’t on the same page as the entries themselves. I don’t think these are actually shortcomings, as the service’s aim is different from that of blogs and microblogs—but if you’re accustomed to those features, the lack may feel a bit odd at first.

To get Tumbling, just fill in the site’s simple sign-up. All you need is an e-mail address (which will be your account name), a password, and a title for your Tumblr Web address (as in title.tumblr.com). You’ll do most of your posting from the Dashboard, where there are options for Text, Photo, Quote, Link, Chat, and Video. Don’t be fooled by the Chat button—it’s just a text entry where you’re supposed to paste text from a chat dialog you had or saw: The post will be formatted to look like a conversation.

 

Are you ready to Tumbl?

Probably the most common type of entry is the text post. Tumblr’s simple WYSIWYG interface lets you do basic formatting (bold, italics, lists) and add images to the post. There’s also a spell-checker and an HTML code viewer. Though the site’s design doesn’t lend itself to very long posts, there’s no specific limit on length. After you’ve created the post, you can easily delete or edit it, and you can ascertain its direct URL with tools that appear to the right of each entry in your Dashboard.

Adding a photo post is a simple matter of browsing for the file on your hard drive or entering a hyperlink to an image. You have the option of adding a caption, which is done in the same edit box used for text posts. You even have the odd option of inserting an image into your image caption. I prefer the way Pownce handles links to Flickr images, creating a large thumbnail image and linking to the full-size image on the photo hosting site.

You can add videos found on sites like YouTube or DailyMotion to your tumblelog from the Add a Video page by entering the video’s URL or embed tag and an optional caption. The videos will be playable right from your tumblelog. This works with just about any video-sharing site, but you can’t upload your own movies directly to Tumblr. The Quote entry option merely gives you two text boxes, one for the quotation and another for the source, and formats the post appropriately based on your theme choice.

Along with regular RSS, there are ten tailored feed types you can add to your tumblelog, including Flickr, Last.fm and YouTube. For these, it’s just a matter of entering the username for the feed you want. I had no problem adding feeds from Twitter, Last.fm, and RSS. Since Tumblr can output an RSS feed from your entries, I wondered what would happen if I subscribed the tumblelog to its own feed. The service wasn’t biting, however, in my quest to generate an infinite loop of RSS. You should probably go easy on adding feeds, anyhow; remember, this service is supposed to be letting people know about your thoughts and activities.

Tumblr resembles Twitter and its ilk in providing the concept of a “following,” which users can sign up for to keep track of your posts. You’d really only want to use Tumblr for posts intended for the public, as there’s no way to designate your tumblelog as private, to be shared only among those you’ve selected—an option Pownce, Jaiku, and even Twitter offer. If you’re logged into Tumblr, other tumblelogs will display an “Add to friends” icon; if you click this, the friend’s icon will appear on your Dashboard but not on your actual page that’s visible to the rest of the Web. You can also opt to see your friends’ posts interspersed with your own on your Dashboard page. I would prefer that pages be able to display friends’ icons as a sort of blogroll so that you could let your readers know which tumblelogs you consider worth following.

 

Settings and Goodies

The Settings tab is where you can edit your tumblelog’s title, description, URL, and password, for starters. It’s also where you can upload your profile picture and choose one of the five prebuilt themes or enter your own custom CSS code. If you don’t want to get into the code, color pickers let you customize every page element.

You can choose whether you want to be promoted in the Tumblr directory, to “ping the blogosphere” or send it to Technorati and other blog aggregators every time you make an entry. These options give you a convenient way to drive traffic to your page.

On the Goodies tab, you’ll find four utilities offering more ways to post and view tumbles. A bookmarklet that you can drag to your browser’s toolbar lets you post content from the page you happen to be browsing to your tumblelog. It’s pretty clever about telling what kind of post is appropriate—link, video, photo, and so on.

Next, two mobile helpers: One lets you post text and photos from a phone using an e-mail address, and the other is simply the mobile-friendly URL for viewing your tumblelog on a phone browser. The e-mail address works from your regular e-mail account as well as from a phone, but the post won’t get a title. Finally, Mac users have the option of downloading the Tumblet Dashboard Widget. This is pretty basic, and doesn’t identify a post as, for example, a video, so it unfortunately won’t display the player.

Tumblr will make a lot of sense for many people who want to share Web content. It’s an example of a good idea well executed. Occupying the space between full blogging services and microblogging sites like Twitter, Tumblr offers an easy way to get your messages and images out on the Web without the hassle of setting up a standard blog. This innovative service combines a lot of power and features in an extremely easy and intuitive user interface.

Source: PC Magazine