Called FriendFactory the site offers chat rooms, content that Sony insists will be led by members, instant messaging through a system called e-Notes and an e-mail address. With all of this already offered in similar form by ISPs and portals, what the Web site will bring to the consumer is not entirely clear.
Is it an ISP? Is it a chat forum? "It's about community," says Chris Warrender, head of FriendFactory, UK. "It's whatever the individual member wants it to be. Community means different things to different people. We give people the tools they need to create the sort of personal community they want to be part of. Members can meet new friends, talk about the things that matter to them, or just relax and spend time with friends and family," he says. Would it not have been easier to offer the service through an ISP? "An ISP has been discussed but we decided to go the FriendFactory route," Warrender says.
The difference between FriendFactory and other ISP and Web offering lies in the control of content according to a Sony spokeswoman. "Unlike AOL, where content is fed to you and controlled by faceless people in an office, this allows you to re-evaluate the Internet and do it your way," she says.
As members of FriendFactory are building friends and communities, a Java-based connection centre is busy sending targeted e-Notes to individuals. Warrender denies one to one marketing is merely another form of spam. "We are not selling lists. We choose who the information is going to and it will be restricted to one or two a day," he says.
An AOL spokeswoman described the launch of the Web site as "flattering". "It's nice to see they are picking up on the kind of thing we have been offering," she says. "My only concern is how it is monitored to keep undesirables out. It will be harder to police than the walled garden that AOL offers." Membership is free and other perks include 15MB of free Web space and help with building homepages, chat rooms and discussion groups . The Web site has been live since January and currently has 3,000 members. Sony hopes to increase this to 1 million by March 2000. So what kind of individual would be interested in FriendFactory? "The emphasis is on fun and funky," says Warrender.