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.