Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Meebo Opens Site to Developers

Meebo Opens Site to Developers

October 30, 2007; Page B4

Meebo Inc., a Silicon Valley start-up aiming to morph from a Web-instant-messaging company into a general-purpose media company, will open its Web site to software developers, throwing it into possible competition with the likes of Facebook Inc. and Google Inc.

You can, on Facebook, where thousands of free applications let you interact with friends in unusual ways. But while fun for users, developers are vying for eyeballs, hoping to turn a profit with ad dollars. Stacey Delo reports. (Oct. 29)

Two years ago, Meebo began offering technology that enables instant messaging through a Web site without the user downloading software from other companies. Now, in a bid to become a broader "destination" site and cash in on the online-ad market, the Mountain View, Calif., company will allow outside software developers to build programs and applications around its instant-messaging technology.

The new programs, which could expand Meebo's reach, will stress activities that can be enjoyed live online with groups of friends, like interactive speed dating and computer games. Meebo, backed by high-profile Silicon Valley investors Sequoia Capital and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, hopes to make money by selling online ads inside the programs.

The company's transformation shows how hot the trend of social networking and Web-based "communities" has become, and how eager venture capitalists are to fund such ventures, despite questions about their profit potential. Meebo started collecting revenue only two months ago, from ads sold inside its chat rooms. The company, with its focus on live activities, "has the potential to be a fabulous business" and earn money, said Roelof Botha, a partner at Sequoia.

Facebook, a popular social-networking site, opened its Web platform this year. Since then, nearly 6,000 programs have been added to Facebook's site, the company says.

Meebo's initial rollout will feature services including Internet phone-calling and online video. The company is partnering with TokBox Inc., also backed by Sequoia, to provide video Web calling. It will work with Ustream.TV Inc. to offer live, streaming video. The idea is to encourage programs that stress the always-on nature of Meebo and its users, as opposed to the "static" set-up of sites like Facebook and Google's YouTube, says Seth Sternberg, Meebo's chief executive.

Instead of posting a video on YouTube, a Meebo user could stream video of an event as it is happening and simultaneously share it with a pre-selected group of instant-messaging friends, Mr. Sternberg says. He co-founded Meebo two years ago with Elaine Wherry and Sandy Jen.

This year, Meebo launched Meebo Rooms, which essentially are chat rooms. It has had success parlaying some rooms into larger media partnerships. CBS Corp., for instance, now links to the Meebo chat room about the offbeat TV show "Jericho" and has made it the main Jericho chat room on the CBS Web site.

"We want to encourage lots of different partners . . . to build really super-viral, super-engaged platforms to sit outside of cbs.com," said Patrick Keane, an executive vice president and chief marketing officer for CBS Interactive. CBS provides behind-the-scenes Jericho footage and other tidbits for the Meebo chat room and has signed on as a Meebo advertiser, Mr. Keane says.

CBS says it is working with other sites, including Facebook. Facebook has added programs that offer instant-messaging to its site, which might reduce any advantage Meebo has. Meebo executives and investors say the company has established itself as a destination for instant-messaging, with more than six million unique users logging in monthly.

Write to Rebecca Buckman at rebecca.buckman@wsj.com