The battle for the blogosphere

Until recently, most providers of blogging software and services were relatively small startup companies, but now big-footed competitors are joining them, changing the dynamics and philosophies of the so-called blogosphere.

As heavy entrants such as Microsoft stomp into blogging with groundshaking steps, the question is whether the changes they are bringing will be benefitial or detrimental to the market.

Blogging is a medium whose skyrocketing popularity in both the consumer and enterprise spaces is widely credited with how simple and easy it made publishing text on the Web. Already, however, Microsoft has single-handedly introduced what many consider a significant variation to the original stripped-down approach to blogging with its MSN Spaces service.

Blogging services and software traditionally have provided a simple core functionality for creating online journals easily. These services generally are built on open platforms so that users, if interested, can add extra features to their blogs and integrate them with third-party services to add capabilities.

However, with MSN Spaces, Microsoft is delivering a pre-set suite of blogging and complementary services on a platform that doesn't allow for much manual tweaking and extension on the part of the end-user.

"There are two big buckets in blogging services. There are those built on open standards and meant to be publishing platforms. The beauty of those products is that they allow a lot of customization by the end-user," says Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst.

"At the other end of the spectrum is the Microsoft approach, which is blogging services that are quite connected to e-mail, instant messaging, photos, music, and the like. Blogging is just one element of the overall experience, and they are more restrictive and harder to customize," Weiner adds.

Introduced in beta form just last December, MSN Spaces now hosts over 10 million blogs, an eye-popping adoption rate that has blown past internal Microsoft expectations. "MSN Spaces is the fastest growing service MSN has ever introduced," says Brooke Richardson, lead product manager at MSN communication services.

The significant thing for the blogging market is that Microsoft is doing it its way, designing MSN Spaces to have a central text-blogging core but complemented by and integrated with a suite of MSN online services, such as instant messaging, e-mail, music playlist posting, and photo sharing. Microsoft also built into the service access control features to let users determine who can view their blogs, although they can make their blogs totally open if they want. MSN Spaces will also notify users when blogs from friends have been updated.

In March, Yahoo introduced in limited beta a service called Yahoo 360 whose concept and design are similar to MSN Spaces. This service comes as no surprise, because Yahoo, like Microsoft's MSN, has a wide variety of online services with which to surround its blogging service. As two leading Web portals, MSN and Yahoo have an amount and variety of online services under one roof that few others can rival, and blogging is something they're weaving into their overall fabric.

This clashes with the philosophy of most original blogging services, including Blogger, which Google acquired in 2003 after Blogger had become popular. Services such as Blogger offer basic blogging functionality but also tend to be open, flexible platforms that tech-savvy users can extend, build upon, and integrate with third-party services.

"I personally get a little overwhelmed when there are so many things to choose from, and so many different fields, and it's so loud, and it's asking me so many different questions at once," says Biz Stone, Blogger senior specialist.

"I got into blogging because it was this blank box and I could type a thought into there and press a button. For me that's almost enough," Stone adds.

For example, Blogger to date has no native way for users to control access to their blogs, nor does it feature native image uploading, two capabilities core to MSN Spaces and Yahoo 360.

"Once you create [an access controlled] blog and you bring your instant messaging and music playlist and pictures into it, you wind up with something that is very powerful but that I would argue is not a blog," says Gartner's Weiner. "I would call it a community content site, and it will be extremely popular, but it is definitely a variant" on the conventional blog concept.

In April, when MSN Spaces exited its beta period, it was already among the most popular blogging sites in the U.S. based on stats indicating 2.87 million unique visitors that month, according to market researcher comScore Networks.

MSN Spaces was topped only by blogging stalwarts. Google's Blogger and its accompanying Blogspot hosting site together drew 12.63 million unique visitors in April, followed by Six Apart's Typepad and LiveJournal services, which together rang up 11.47 million, and by Xanga.com with 8.26 million.

Microsoft makes no apologies for adopting a different approach. "When you thought of a blogger a year ago, it was someone writing a blog that they wanted to disseminate to anyone in the entire world. Now we're seeing blogging entering the more mainstream consumer space, and people are using it to share with a closer, tighter circle of people," MSN's Richardson says.

Surrounding MSN Spaces natively with a variety of vehicles to share and communicate with others helps draw people who may have avoided blogging out of fear it would require them to generate a large amount of text to post on a daily basis, Richardson said.

The tradeoff for services such as MSN Spaces that come with native integration of a variety of features and capabilities is that they can be less flexible and extensible than a service such as Blogger.

After MSN Space's debut in December, Microsoft's most famous corporate blogger, Robert Scoble, greeted the service warmly but posted on his blog all the reasons why it wasn't a service for him, which in essence boiled down to customization constraints.

Failing to win over sophisticated and tech-savvy bloggers such as Scoble, a Microsoft technology evangelist, is a tradeoff that Microsoft is happy to make, at least for now. Providing a rich sharing experience that includes not only text but also photos, playlists, access control, instant messaging and e-mail in a single, integrated, easy to use, out-of-the-box type of way is paying off for MSN Spaces, Richardson said. "At this growth rate, we could become the largest blogging service in the near future," she said. Microsoft is tapping mostly people who haven't blogged before, and specifically among the ranks of MSN Messenger users, she said.

Standing in the middle between the MSN Spaces and the Blogger approach is Six Apart. The San Francisco company's Typepad caters to conventional bloggers interested in publishing and reaching an unlimited number of readers, whereas its LiveJournal service, which it acquired this year, appeals to bloggers who want to communicate with a limited sphere of friends and thus seek a service with tight, very granular access control to individual blogs. Six Apart also has a sophisticated software blogging platform called Moveable Type designed for companies, developers, and organizations.

"We have offerings for all bloggers right now. We cover every base in the market right now," says Mena Trott, Six Apart's president and co-founder.

Six Apart acquired LiveJournal to diversify and broaden the company's user base, she says. LiveJournal's user base is about 70 percent female and about 70 percent under age 21. Typepad's demographic is split equally among men and women who are on average in their early 30s, she says.

Ultimately, the consensus is that the shift in blogging from new services such as MSN Spaces and Yahoo 360 will not have a negative effect on the market because it is attracting new users, and that can only be good for everybody.

"It's great for the entire space as a whole. The more of those services there are, the more connections people are making online," says Blogger's Stone.

"We definitely welcome it because it brings more people to blogging and helps expose blogging to a larger audience, so that helps us because more people will realize they'll want to use our products," says Six Apart's Trott. "We're heavily influencing what they put in their services, so in terms of innovation we're not too scared about that."

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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