Ya Wanna Play Rough, Eh? (Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk)

Most of us don’t appreciate the great slapstick comics anymore. Like Jerry Seinfeld, we prefer the verbal abuse of Bud Abbott to the physical abuse of Moe Howard.

But in business, a little schoolyard gang fighting can still be great entertainment. Fairmarket Inc., Woburn, Mass., has been pushing this idea for years now, and the folks at Microsoft have finally decided to play Curly and say “certainly,” or more precisely, “soitenly!

The news is that Microsoft, Dell, Lycos and Excite – about 100 auction sites in all – will pool their databases through Fairmarket so users have access to a larger whole. eBay has over 1,600 categories and 3 million items for sale, and its sheer size has it running away with the market. By sharing, its rivals hope to scale and dog-pile on the leader.

Of course, eBay’s sheer size has proven a problem. There’s always a joker in the deck, and in a deck of 3 million cards there are tons of jokers. So people have tried to auction body parts, and liquor, and pirated software, and a host of things they don’t really have on eBay. (They’ve also played technical games on the buy-side.)

The eBay folks have (to use an even older comic analogy) sometimes looked like Keystone Cops in their attempts to police all this. Cops cost money, so eBay has also sought the help of its own users (and now, real police) to handle the problem.

The Fairmarket theory, by contrast, is that you have 100 different streams, and 100 groups of people trying to keep those streams clean. The result should be a cleaner bay.

The question is who will be the Environmental Protection Agency of this new ecosystem, and will they have any authority? Who will tell Bill Gates, or Michael Dell, that their standards need to be tightened because they’re polluting? Can they enforce the standards?

You know what’s coming, don’t you? It’s my favorite scene in any good slapstick comedy. The charges, the countercharges – yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about the Pie Fight scene!

Think about it. The absolute size of the Fairmarket or eBay database isn’t really going to be the deciding factor on which business model wins. What’s going to matter, I think, is old-fashioned integrity. Victory goes to the side that’s most trusted.

Until we have some real facts and comparisons, however, it’s going to be hard to prove integrity one way or the other. So I expect, around the time of Internet World to see a flood of releases from both sides claiming they’re bigger, or cleaner, than their rival, followed by responses from the other side that not only refute these claims but make new claims. They’re paper pies, or electronic pies, but they can be just as much fun as the banana cream kind if you get the joke.

The joke is that in the end the market decides who wins. Many people will get pies in their face, and those who want to auction will go where they decide the prices and service are best. Once we finish laughing at the Pie Fight, we need to watch the box office numbers and not the reviews. Comedies don’t win Oscars, but Jerry Seinfeld has more money than Alec Baldwin.

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