Classifieds are on everyone’s mind, it seems. Microsoft’s announcement of a classifieds product last week followed close on the beta release of Google Base, leading to inevitable comparisons between the two. But Microsoft’s upcoming product, internally named “Fremont,” has quite a different approach.
For one, it uses the concept of social networks to let listings owners specify who gets to see their ads. Tie-ins with MSN Messenger and the company’s email groups mean sellers will be able to reach out to friends and colleagues first, and the general Web-going public second.
ClickZ caught up with Garry Wiseman, Microsoft’s product unit manager on Fremont, to discuss the upcoming classifieds platform.
Q. Describe your role and background at Microsoft.
A. I’m what they call a product unit manager. That basically means I’m responsible for the product team, which contains developers, product managers, test engineers and possibly designers.
I used to run the international MSN portals. I came over last year in July, to complete another project we were working on here on the homepage in the U.S., in between staffing on the Fremont product and other [projects].
Q. Fremont is perhaps inevitably being called an answer to Google Base. Is that what it is?
A. We’re really flattered. The fact that people think we could put together an enterprise scaling classified service in two weeks? I’d love to say we did. And my developers’ egos are going to be even more inflated.
We had no idea about Google Base. We were as surprised as anybody. We had no inside information.
Q. Do you think they did?
A. I’d be surprised. There are so few people involved only four people. We’ve added two, for a grand total of six.
Q. What’s the creation story on Fremont? How’s it unique?
A. When I moved over here from the U.K., I’d heard about this internal classifieds service. It was only available to Microsoft employees. The amount of activity was huge. There are about 5,000 or 6,000 active listings on an average day… from babysitting requests to buying and selling cars.
I started looking at the site. [It was popular for] a bunch of reasons. One of them is trust. You tend to trust someone you work with more than a stranger. The person isn’t going to vanish the next day. They work at Microsoft. They’re also not going to rip you off. You wouldn’t want to get a bad rep internally.
And we’re into the same kinds of thing. The amount of gadgets that are sold on there is huge.
One of the things I’ve talked about is the fact that we want to instill a feeling of trust, a community feeling. Craigslist is grassroots. It’s got this community of people who like to post. There’s a lot of chatter, a lot of rants and raves. We wanted to makes sure people could specify the kind of social networks they could find items from or post items to.
The other thing we’ve spent a lot of time on is the UI. I’ve spent a lot of time to make sure you can list an item in less than a minute. We wanted to make the barrier to listings as low as possible. I always use my mom as the example. She’s one of those people who literally thinks the DVD player in her computer is a coffee cup holder. She’s the basis of my usability test.
We’ve also made sure we haven’t dumbed it down. We’ve got RSS in there. We’ve got AJAX. It’s stuff that isn’t just put in there for technology’s sake.
I think the whole Google Base comparison will vanish once people see the UI and use the service.
Q. And when will that be?
A. At the moment we’re in an internal beta. We’re getting a bunch of feedback from people. All the internal Microsoft folks are using it. I can assure you they’re very critical. We’re being a bit vague about launch dates, because we really want to give the right impression when we put it out there.
Q. It calls to mind the socially-driven business listings on LinkedIn, where services are ranked by business connections.
A. That would be more like a friends-of-friends thing. We’re not enabling that yet, because of privacy concerns. People haven’t necessarily agreed that you can see my friends yet, whereas with LinkedIn that’s the whole premise of the service.
Q. Will you publish APIs? Are you open to tying Fremont in with MySpace, for instance?
A. We’re just starting with two social networks at the moment. We have the buddy lists, and we’ve got the email groups. Those two scenarios may be relevant for different types of people. Young people may be ideal for buddy lists, email groups for corporations and universities.
Q. What’s the key to extending the service to other platforms?
A. It would depend on how open they would be.
Q. And how open is Microsoft?
A. We’re fairly open. If you look internally at what we have with [MSN] Groups, certainly it would be interesting to see what kinds of other sites would be willing to share. The fact that we have an interoperability agreement with Yahoo is going to benefit us even more.
Q. And Microsoft will monetize it with ads?
A. Correct. And if you set your location, we’ll try to make the ads more relevant.
Q. How about behavioral targeting?
A. It wasn’t one of the most important things to get started with. We thought less about revenue, more about creating [value].
Q. What’s next for you and the Fremont group?
A. We’ve still got a bunch of work to do. My primary goal is to make sure the international rollout goes well.
It’s been interesting to see the initial responses. I’m just looking forward to having folks starting to use the service. I’m really hoping that people will understand the concepts.
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