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Microsoft repaves Sidewalk--again

The giant makes yet another sweep of changes to its local guides--but this time, the business model for the project is overhauled.

Today's reincarnation of Microsoft's MSN Sidewalk highlights a painful lesson that most local Web guides have learned: it's about utility, not content.

When Microsoft first launched Sidewalk, it was the software giant's attempt to prove to the world that it had soul. Instead of conforming to the template of localized one-stop-shops like America Online's Digital City, Sidewalk attempted to appeal to a younger, hipper, and more Web-savvy population of Netizens with more cutting edge content--a Village Voice of the Web.

"[Microsoft] set out to make Sidewalk the coolest alternative news weekly on the Web," said Peter Krasilovsky, vice president of research firm Arlen Communications. "They were driven by a mission to be the place where young Web-centric people would go. They were essentially reengineering social life."

But with today's relaunch, Sidewalk became a different beast. It no longer strictly centers its service around restaurant reviews or lifestyle columns. Instead, it's about shopping and yellow pages.

"We would consider ourselves a consumer guide," said Matt Kursh, Sidewalk's business unit manager.

When it first launched in April 1997, Sidewalk said it would establish an editorial staff in each host city to write reviews and culture features, while seeking out local small businesses for advertising to drive revenue. Local media outlets held their breath.

But Sidewalk soon realized that creating content was not cost effective, and maintaining an editorial staff in its city sites became a tremendous financial burden. Months after its launch, Sidewalk announced a shift in strategy along with consolidation and layoffs.

It soon became apparent that Microsoft would have to resort to what it did best to keep Sidewalk afloat: create tools, not content.

The trend holds true with other local guides created by national firms. Many of these services, such as Digital City, Zip2, and CitySearch, have partnered with content providers instead of creating it themselves.

Today was Sidewalk's turn. Once solely a platform to explore city culture, Sidewalk now aims to be an online shopper's resource integrated into the MSN.com portal. Instead of limiting its service to nine cities, Sidewalk now features services such as movie listings, which are database-driven. This allows users to type in a zip code and receive information relevant to their area.

Sidewalk also hopes to attract more national advertisers from companies that have traditionally shied away from the Web with its buyer's guide, said Mark Mooradian, an analyst at Jupiter Communications.

"Sidewalk is arguing that there's no real branded resource out there for people who want a [clothes] dryer, or for people who want a doctor," said Mooradian. "[The buyer's guide] is a way to get at advertisers that have been characteristically problematic: recreational equipment, mechanics, doctors, contractors."

In the long run, the future of Sidewalk will most likely be dependent upon the success of MSN.com, Microsoft's portal project. Sidewalk will fall into Microsoft's overall strategy to fold all its Web properties under one MSN moniker. Sidewalk will become another component to find anything local and e-commerce-related, Krasilovsky added.

Nevertheless, the changes may be good for Sidewalk. Microsoft's focus on making the service a tool rather than a magazine is one step in the right direction, noted Mooraidan.

"I think this is Microsoft continually trying to make it work, and it's totally characteristic of Microsoft, and something they usually do with a great deal of success," he said. "Is it an admission of defeat from what they were doing before? Probably.

"It's important to note that Sidewalk is hardly the pioneer here," he added. "So far it's been a utility game."