Lycos Introduces Drag-and-Drop “Web 2.0 Publishing for the Masses”

7/15/08Follow @wroush

Back in May we wrote about the re-launch of Lycos Cinema, which Waltham, MA-based Lycos had tricked out with a new chat interface that lets up to 10 friends in different locations watch and comment on the same movie simultaneously. It turns out that was just the first step in a multi-part strategy to reinvent all of the venerable, South Korean-owned company’s products, which focus these days mainly on search (HotBot and WhoWhere), social gaming and media (Gamesville, Lycos Cinema), and personal online publishing (Tripod, Angelfire).

The latest part of the strategy is the official opening this week of Webon, a Web publishing tool that makes it extremely easy for people without Internet expertise to build engaging websites.. Using a simple, drag-and-drop, what-you-see-is-what-you-get interface that spares people from having to learn HTML and other Web arcana, Webon visitors can build sites that include blogs, photo albums, comments, RSS feeds, and Facebook-style news feeds. The sites can include all sorts of social networking features designed by contributors to Google’s OpenSocial platform.

But users don’t have to rely completely on Google—they can also import social gadgets that developers have written for other sites participating in the OpenSocial initiative, such as MySpace, Hi5, Ning, Plaxo, and imeem. (A “gadget” or “widget,” in Web lingo, is a small, modular software application that can function in many different contexts, such as Web pages or computer desktops; a typical OpenSocial gadget might be, say, a birthday gadget that lists the upcoming birthdays of one’s social-networking pals.) The basic Webon service is free, and users don’t even have to register to build a site. A premium version, including a custom domain name and unlimited storage, goes for $8.95 per month.

Screen shot from Webon Editing InterfaceLycos chief technology officer Don Kosak says Webon, which has been in closed beta testing for several months, represents an attempt to sweep away all the technical and procedural hurdles that keep average Web users from building sophisticated websites. “We dug deep into what the barriers are,” says Kosak. “Going through a lengthy signup process was one. Payment up front is another. Learning HTML, having to buy or download software, being able to put pictures or text on a Web page but then having this inert thing that’s difficult to update, those are also turn-offs. We wanted to address all of those issues with Webon.”

The story of Webon—and of the new social features behind Lycos Cinema and Gamesville, as it turns out—actually began four years ago with a failed beta product called Lycos Circles. Part of the company’s avowed strategy at the time of transforming itself from a Yahoo-style search portal into a social network, Circles was an advertising-driven blogging platform that gave users the ability to control how much information was visible to others in their networks.

“The product itself didn’t really take off,” says Kosak. “However, we built a lot of great features into it. And when we built socialization into the Gamesville product, we imported all of that.”

The Lycos team then built the same social engine into the Cinema service. And each time it incorporated the engine into a new product, it layered on more functions, including, now, the Open Social application programming interface (API). With this new interface, developers outside Lycos can write gadgets that access and reuse the information in users’ profiles, friend lists, and news feeds—for example, displaying weather reports for their local areas based on the zip codes stored in their profiles.

At the moment, only about a dozen social add-ons are available for Webon pages. But with the official addition of the OpenSocial API to the Webon platform today, Kosak expects that number to start growing. Using the Webon editing tools, website builders can add the new social widgets to their Webon sites simply by dragging and dropping them onto the sites’ sidebars or main text areas.

Because it’s now part of the OpenSocial initiative, the Webon platform is also open to gadgets from other social sites that belong to the OpenSocial network. For example, a record of users’ activities on Webon can be published as an RSS feed, which can then be copied directly into a Facebook newsfeed (Facebook’s version of an activity stream). “If you have hundreds of friends on Facebook, we don’t want you to have to recreate your entire social graph on Webon,” says Kosak. “We let you take your activity stream and share that with people on Facebook.”

While all this talk of “social graphs” and “activity streams” may sound a bit technical, Webon is really all about “trying to bring this to the masses,” says Kosak. “Back in 1996, with Tripod, the goal was also to bring Web publishing to the masses—but the little asterisk next to ‘the masses’ was ‘as long as they knew a bit of HTML and were comfortable with FTP.’ The hurdles were still there.”

Kosak says that a team of market researchers hired by Lycos tried out the preview version of Webon on 4,000 people; before the tests, only 20 percent said they were interested in being able to build a website, and after the tests, 80 percent were. “There’s just a huge number of people out there who want to build websites but don’t want to have to buy HTML for Dummies or spend $399 on Dreamweaver or FrontPage,” says Kosak. “This is way for them to get into it.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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