Microsoft's Sidewalk soon to become a 50 city stroll

Microsoft Corp.'s slow-to-grow Sidewalk venture is about to go into overdrive, with 41 of the city guide sites expected to go online by year's end, insiders said.
Written by Martha Stone, Contributor
Microsoft Corp.'s slow-to-grow Sidewalk venture is about to go into overdrive, with 41 of the city guide sites expected to go online by year's end, insiders said.

And along the way, they could set a standard for a new breed of city directory service.

Sidewalk, which debuted in 1996, will be transformed from chiefly arts and entertainment listings to also include a Yellow Pages directory, consumer buying guide and a "portal" to other sites. The current Sidewalk universe of nine sites will expand into 50 markets, sources said.

The 10th city likely will be Chicago, expected to be launched between Oct. 16 and Dec. 1. Server capacity problems and glitches uncovered in testing have postponed earlier internal launch goals, the sources said.

'Sidewalk continues to look pretty smart to us.'
-- Analyst John Kelsey

The other city launches could start as soon as mid-November, insiders said. Though only 3 1/2 months remain until their launch goal, Sidewalk officials are optimistic that they will be able to launch 41 new city guides by year's end.

Already up and running are sites for Seattle, New York, Boston, Houston, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco, San Diego, Washington and Sydney, Australia. All are accessible from www.sidewalk.com.

What's your take on online city guides? How does Sidewalk rate, and do you think it will survive? Add your comments to the bottom of this page.

Insiders say that Sidewalk may incorporate smaller sites as satellites of nearby larger cities. That could mean that Detroit and Milwaukee, for example, could be satellites of the Chicago office, and Sidewalk may not have an actual presence in the smaller cities.

"They're going to have a very busy fall if that's the case," said Lisa Allen, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., and former founding director of Boston Sidewalk.

As with other city guides, profitability is predicted when a critical mass of people frequent the sites. But analysts predict that critical mass won't come to pass for another five years.

Because of years of hemorrhaging budgets for the sites, however, Forrester senior analyst Bill Bass, for one, has predicted that Sidewalk won't survive another year.

Analysts estimate that each Sidewalk site has lost millions of dollars in the past two years of existence, while taking in about $500,000 per site per year.

Can quality be maintained?
"I think that the Sidewalk cities have done a great job in creating deep databases of content. That costs a lot of money. Whether that level of content will continue remains to be seen," said Allen, the analyst at Forrester.

But others see a rosier future.

"[Sidewalk] continues to look pretty smart to us. Unlike traditional media, they were able to announce this product, and say this is not working and pull it back and try a different model," said John Kelsey, principal of Kelsey Group, a media consultant firm in Princeton, N.J.

To create the consumer shopping guides, dozens of people reportedly have been added to Microsoft's (Nasdaq:MSFT) Redmond, Wash., staff.

The content won't duplicate the Consumer Reports model of touting best-quality products, but will instead be more of an interactive questionnaire that seeks to locate the best product for an individual consumer, similar to Microsoft's popular CarPoint and Expedia (travel) sites.

For example, a consumer researching a television purchase would answer a series of questions about the cost, style, size and features desired, and the database would return a number of choices and the places to purchase the item.

Sidewalk will also go head-to-head with local Yellow Pages services. The feature will provide information on advertisers and non-advertisers in the buying guides and local business directories, said Gayle Troberman, Sidewalk product manager.

Let your mouse do the walking
The Yellow Pages portion of the site is in public beta on the Microsoft site. Troberman said there are many reasons they believe Sidewalk 3.0 will succeed.

"We know this is what consumers need. Most consumers online are already using the Internet to research products and services prior to make a purchase decision -- between 55 percent and 91 percent depending on which market research study you look at."

In the next version of Sidewalk to be launched probably in 1999, databases for Yellow Pages, consumer reports and arts and entertainment information will be combined into one searchable database.

That will allow users to conduct more efficient and comprehensive searches for information, according to the company.

Meanwhile, as technologies improve, and as constant connections become commonplace with ADSL lines and cable models, city guides will become increasingly popular, analysts said.

All your plumbing needs
"If you need a plumber at 3 a.m., you would go to Yellow Pages," Kelsey said. "[With Yellow Pages online], it will be a lot easier. When you can talk to your computer and say, "24-hour plumber" and see the answer [on your computer screen], I think you have a significant product."

Sidewalk isn't Microsoft's only online venture about to get an upgrade. In fact, Sidewalk will be a part of the expanding services and features offered on the MSN.com portal site. MSN.com was previously called MSN Start.

Martha L. Stone teaches New Media & Technology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and is a frequent contributor to ZDNN.

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