Ex-Sun boss McNealy launches social gaming startup

WayIn is a polling game for consumers, but it also wants to be a savvy tool for businesses

Scott McNealy has never been shy about sharing his opinions; now he wants everyone else to do the same.

The former Sun boss launched his new company this week, and it's a long way from the enterprise IT business he ran for most of his life. Called WayIn, it's a social gaming service that lets people post a photo online and create their own quick poll, asking friends and other members to "weigh in" with their opinion.

The subject can be anything. "Just point, click, shoot, and ask for unlimited opinions on everything from the cute stranger to your right to the concert you saw last night," WayIn says on its website. Clicking on a response shows how everyone else voted.

The service is accessed through a free app for iPhones, iPads and Android-based devices, and through a Web browser.

McNealy invited journalists to a small launch event at his home in the hills above Silicon Valley this week. He described WayIn as "a little bit of Facebook, a little bit of Twitter, and a big chunk of SurveyMonkey."

It's designed to be fast, fun and addictive, he said. The questions posted so far range from enlightening to goofy. "Which first lady eats the most?" asks one poster. "Is Obama being straight with his answers?" asks another. McNealy's include: "Would you allow Amanda Knox to baby-sit your kids?" (No, he says, along with 65 percent of other respondents).

The intended audience is consumers, but WayIn's real target is big business. It hopes to amass a vast database of consumer sentiment, which it will then sell to businesses along with the analytics tools to parse the data, for marketing and other purposes.

Businesses can also pay to slip their own questions onto the service. For example, if Ford needed to choose a design for the grille of its next Mustang, it could post two photos and ask people which one they liked best. "We can give them an answer in two hours, and it will be statistically significant," McNealy said.

A friend approached him with the idea about a year ago, he said, soon after Oracle took control of Sun. McNealy is the company chairman and the biggest investor in a group that has raised US$6.3 million in funding. He recruited a team of former Sun Java engineers to build the service.

WayIn also has an interactive TV component, the part McNealy seemed most enthused about. "We've solved the interactive TV problem," he declared.

Players can enter forums where people chat and answer questions about live events, such as the Oscars or a big sporting event. This helps broadcasters, according to McNealy, because it will encourage people to watch events live, instead of recording them for the next day and skipping the ads.

If they don't watch live, they can't answer questions about the event, which means they can't win points toward cheap tickets for next week's game, for example, or discounted merchandise.

WayIn has signed three partners to begin with and says it will name 20 more in the coming weeks. The first are the LA Kings hockey team, the Republican National Committee and Playboy.

"I predict Playboy's Frisky Friday voting is going to be huge," McNealy quipped, adding hastily that it will be the "PG-13" version.

Brands are struggling to get value from their followers on Facebook and Twitter, he argued. "There's 10 million people following Obama on Twitter. But how many people love him and how many people hate him? Twitter doesn't know that," he said. "We can post a picture and ask 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down."

Players can provide their location data, so WayIn can sell "geographic heat maps" showing how opinions are dispersed across the country. That could help the Republicans, for example, to decide where to campaign hardest before an election.

Companies can use it internally too, McNealy said. "Imagine the employees follow their CEO. At the end of the week he can ask a question -- did you have a great week? A lousy week? Then we give him a heat map across the entire U.S."

WayIn faces plenty of challenges. It needs to attract millions of users to compile its sentiment database. And there's a heavy social aspect to the service, which means it's competing for users with Facebook and Twitter. The small blue WayIn logo will appear at the bottom of blog posts and on other sites, McNealy said, just as they do for Facebook and Twitter, so people can weigh in on topics easily.

The interactive TV part requires users to have their smartphone or iPad on the couch with them. Television is a "lean back" medium, and it's still not clear if people want to interact with the shows they're watching, even if the technology is made easy.

But McNealy brings a lot to the table. One of Silicon Valley's longest-serving CEOs, he has always been a savvy marketer -- every one of his "giant hairball" rants against Windows was covered by the press (not that they harmed Microsoft much, in the end). And he has connections: Most of WayIn's board members, partners and investors are friends and acquaintances from when he ran Sun.

"We have all these partnerships because of him; for a startup, that's a massive accelerator," said Tom Jessiman, the company's CEO.

The service is live now. McNealy can be followed at ScottMcNealy. Look him up; he won't be shy about what he's thinking.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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