Le Web 08: Startups plan 'Facebookification' of the Web

If the next generation of Internet startups presenting at Le Web 08 conference in Paris have their way, the Web of the future could look like one big social-networking site.

"We see the influence of what has come before. The Facebookification of the Web is upon us," said David Hornik, a partner with venture fund August Capital, and one of the judges of the startup competition at the conference.

"Everything is a feed," he said. That's not necessarily a bad thing -- feeds, or streams of information pushed out to the user as they are generated, can be a logical way to present some kinds of information -- but startups here are using them to present everything from travel bookings to business management tools, he said.

Another thing that united the 30 startups presenting is that they had all put a lot of effort into preparing their business plans, Hornik said.

However, not all of those money-making plans were convincing, according to Philippe Collombel, a partner with venture fund Partech International and also one of the judges. Some of the business plans failed to convince him because the startups are pursuing multiple revenue streams, both business-to-business and business-to-consumer. "That may be too much work for one startup," he said.

That diversity of revenue appealed to another of the judges, Six Apart vice president Olivier Creiche. Six Apart has two revenue streams: selling the Movable Type blogging software, and hosting blogs on which it sells advertising.

Viewdle, a video search company with offices in Kiev, Ukraine, and Santa Monica, California, won the start-up competition. Viewdle uses a face recognition engine to index who appears in video clips, and can couple this with information from close-captioning systems and other metadata to take searchers to the relevant frame in a long clip. Using a cheap PC or server with a dual-core processor, it can index a broadcast video stream in better than real time, a company representative said. News agency Reuters indexes news clips with the technology, while Viewdle also demonstrated how it can be used to recognize friends featured in videos posted on -- where else? -- Facebook.

Second place was a throwback to 1990s startups like Geocities: a company offering free Web hosting services. Webnode, from Brno in the Czech Republic, offers free hosting of sites up to 100M bytes in size, with 1G byte per month of traffic. All it asks in return is a discreet text link naming the service at the bottom of each page. But it's not just about hosting: Webnode also offers (free) site design tools, allowing users to create a site by dragging and dropping elements such as blogs, forums, photo libraries, feedback boxes and so on. It hopes to get users hooked on the simplicity of the interface, and then to make money by selling premium services such as more space, or customized domain names for businesses. It also sells a "white label" version of the service to service providers building Web sites for businesses.

Among the other startups exhibiting was SquareClock, which allows property developers, kitchen designers and, well, anyone interested in home improvements, to furnish and decorate a virtual apartment in their Web browser. SquareClock models furniture based on details from manufacturers' catalogs, and a wide selection of flooring and wall coverings. There's even a one-click kitchen design tool that takes account of doors and windows to position the sink, cupboards and domestic appliances in an ergonomic sequence. There's a social-networking twist to this too, as SquareClock will allow users to show off their room designs, said managing director Guillaume Delarue. By observing the way that users customize their room layouts, and the combinations of furniture and soft furnishings they choose, SquareClock hopes one day to draw on the wisdom of the crowds to improve the interior decorating advice it offers, he said.

3999.com is counting on the fact that people can't remember contact details, but can remember how they found them, to attract users to its multiplatform search engine. The system only works with structured data, including phone books, stock prices, sports scores and flight or cinema times, but the search engine will return the same search results in response to a query submitted on the Web, from a mobile browser, via SMS (Short Message Service) or through a voice recognition system. That's not necessarily the case with competing services, which often require searches to be submitted with a different syntax via SMS than on the Web, said a company representative. 3999.com hopes to make its money by offering sponsored search results.

Shout'em is hoping to win over the many Le Web attendees who blogged the conference on services like Twitter. Shout'em offers a white-label microblogging service that companies can brand with their own visual styles, or that groups such as sports teams can use to exchange information without the clutter found on more general microblogging services. Posts are limited to 140 characters, ideal for transmission by SMS, although the company has not yet struck a deal with an SMS carrier, said developer Matija Smalcelj.

OOdesk already has 20,000 users of the beta version of its virtual desktop service, said Mahidine Mendjeli, one of its developers. OOdesk allows them to access virtual, hosted applications from any device equipped with a browser through a familiar interface. Its newest creation is OOdisk, a virtual filing system for documents and multimedia files that goes beyond offerings such as Google Docs by allowing remote access to files stored on PCs as well as those hosted on OOdisk servers, and offering a simple interface by which such documents can be shared with friends. While OOdesk is in an open beta trial, OOdisk users are a very select bunch: just eight of them are testing the software for the moment.

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