Technology

Wallop Fails to Meet Expectations


Give Wallop credit: In the me-too world of social networking, it created something very different. The San Francisco startup, which debuted Sept. 26, took things that irritate people about MySpace (NWS) or Facebook and devised a new alternative (see BusinessWeek.com, 9/27/06, "Will Microsoft's Spin-off Pack a Wallop?").

The only problem? They didn't copy what was good about those sites. The result is an experience that initially seems great, but ultimately doesn't deliver much. It's like seeing a thrilling movie preview, then watching the film and realizing, sadly, that the teaser didn't live up to the hype.

AGE-INAPPROPRIATE. Wallop is a Microsoft (MSFT) spin-off and is run by many veterans of the startup and software world. The pedigrees are far longer than top brass at most social networking sites. But in the world of the consumer Internet, pedigree doesn't matter so much as understanding your audience. Wallop is targeting the 18- to 25-year-old market, but it feels like something grownups designed for kids after listening to focus groups—not something a smart kid designed for himself and his peers.

Indeed, judging from the profile pictures, most of the people on the site now are in their late 30s, or older. That doesn't do much for that elusive teen "cool" factor. I think they might have more success marketing the site as a pre-MySpace page, something for, say, middle school kids who aren't using anything now and need something fun and easy.

There are many great things about Wallop. It looks like a desktop, not a Web page. Parts of the page are continually updated and stored in the browser, so the whole page doesn't have to fully reload all the time. This is a big plus over MySpace. Every time I click on anything in MySpace, I cross my fingers and hope my browser doesn't crash—again—and wait far too long for the new page to load.

TOO LITTLE DIRECTION. Wallop's profile pages are more minimal with a few key sections: your network, blog, photos, and music all grouped in the middle of the screen. And like a computer desktop you can pick background "themes" like bamboo trees, metallic images, or just different colors. The Flash-based interface allows for some nice design touches. The boxes, for your network or your blog, for example, swell when you mouse over them, and your pictures automatically rotate in an elegant slide show.

But the clarity of the site navigation is inconsistent. When you open a profile, the site carefully walks you through what to do, giving it a MySpace-with-training-wheels kind of feel. But soon after things get confusing. I was lost at the profile box, which sits in the middle of your screen.

Unlike nearly every other site with any social networking function, there's no form to fill out for your name, birth date, likes and dislikes, marital status, and so on. Just an empty box. Write what you want. That should be freeing, but it's not. People are uncomfortable talking about themselves. It's much easier to list your favorite movies than to write an off-the-cuff manifesto that sums you up as a person.

NOT INTUITIVE. Then there's the "network." Wallop quite accurately figured out that a problem with social networking sites is the word "friend." In the real world, there are all different kinds of friends. Some you want to know all your personal information, some you don't. Wallop tries to solve this with concentric circles of contacts, replacing the word "friends" with "network."

A good concept, but one with a few practical problems. First off, what teenager uses the word "network"? The second problem is a navigational one. Click on an icon representing one of your friends and it doesn't open their page, like it does on most other sites. It goes to the graph of your network, showing a radar-like display of how close that person is in relation to other contacts and seemingly other random people on the site.

That's utterly unintuitive. If I click on a picture of my husband, I want to go to his page. Not see where he ranks in my life. I already know that—I married him! Then I figured maybe clicking on his face on this radar graph will get me to his page. Wrong again. Now I get to see his network and where I fit into it. It takes a full three steps to get to his profile page.

OTHER QUIRKS. That's strange, because the whole premise of Wallop is easier self-expression. Unlike MySpace pages which require a working knowledge of HTML to customize, or Facebook pages which are fairly clean and standard, Wallop allows you to spend 25 cents or so on fun little things, like a sad-looking alien that pops up out of nowhere. The business model is based on people buying these so-called "mods," not ad sales. So why make it so hard to reach your friends' profile pages, which they've ostensibly paid money to deck out in cool ways?

Wallop has other oddities. There's a box labeled "conversations." So I sent someone a note, assuming it might pop up there, but it didn't. Later, I did a blog posting, assuming that would appear in the box marked "blogs." It popped up in the conversations box. Huh?

And then there are the mods, which is a cool and very innovative idea. Wallop is leveraging the 2 million existing Flash programmers out there to come up with unique, stylish, often whimsical stuff to adorn users' pages. It's not too different from teens paying $1 or so for a ringtone to personalize their phones. Wallop wisely gives everyone $5 in credit to play with it.

SILLY SELECTIONS. But so far there's a very limited selection. First, I bought an animated bunny that gets angry when you mouse over him. Kudos to whoever designed him; he is adorable. Then I set him as my background. Periodically, the furious rabbit jumped into the background of my page and then disappeared. I squealed with delight. Then he got annoying. Fast. Same thing with the disappearing alien.

Sure, I paid only 10 cents for each of them, but still considered them unwise purchases. I had visions of the early Internet when dancing babies cluttered home pages. I ended up leaving the virtual mod store with $4.80 remaining. If I can't even use $5, what will compel me to actually spend more? I'm sure the selection will grow as the site develops. I can imagine lots of cool games and other miniapplications. But I can also imagine people coming to the site, trying it out, getting bored, and going back to MySpace before that happens.

To be fair, this is only a test version and in many ways an impressive one. Here's hoping Wallop keeps developing it before teens try it and leave.


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