Microsoft startup packs a Wallop

Microsoft startup packs a Wallop

9/26/2006 7:04:58 PM, by Jeremy Reimer

Back in April, I reported on a new startup company formed by employees at Microsoft Research. With the parent company's blessing and some venture capital funding, some of the employees working on social networking research decided to spin off into Wallop, Inc. Exactly what Wallop intended to do wasn't clear at the time, but they promised to "focus on creating models that mimic the complexity and dynamics of real world relationships."

Well, the site has now launched in an invitation-only "semi-public" beta. The Wallop site bypasses all that old and clunky Web 2.0 stuff and ditches the AJAX in favor of Flash (whether or not Flash counts as Web 3.0 or Web 1.0 is very much up to the perspective of the individual web surfer). The user interface is very, er, flashy, resembling not so much a typical web page as a fun puzzle game. On looks alone, Wallop has something new going on. But is there innovative functionality behind the flash?

One difference in the Wallop approach is that the site isn't going to be supported by traditional in-line advertising. That just "lessens the user experience," according to CEO Karl Jacob. Instead, he plans to make money by offering a marketplace for "self-expression items," a buzzword for purchasing virtual decorations for one's own place on the social network. Music clips, animated widgets, artwork, avatars, and even clothing for avatars will be on sale, although the virtual marketplace section of the web site is not yet available.

There is some precedent for this, for example, the online purchases of "winks" and other animated goodies in Windows Live Messenger, but Jacob wants to take it to the next level. He believes that a marketplace for buying and selling animated widgets will grow large enough to support the site itself. Such an idea has already been successful in South Korea, where a social network called CyWorld uses just such a business model, and the site has recently added an English-language version as well.

Wallop also boasts some new features to differentiate itself from established competitors such as MySpace. The Flash-driven interface allows customization of an individual's site by using drag and drop. The user's virtual social network is displayed in graphical form using a feature called "Radar"—people who aren't as close to you appear as icons placed farther away and if they are outside a certain range they get grayed out.

Current plans are to keep the service invite-only for now, and open to the general public some time next year.

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