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San Francisco Sidewalk launches

It's official: Microsoft's San Francisco Sidewalk rolls out, with other city sites to follow.

Microsoft (MSFT) officially launched its San Francisco Sidewalk city guide today.

Like other Sidewalk versions, San Francisco's features comprehensive listings and reviews of restaurants, movies, theaters, and other forms of entertainment in an interactive interface.

Also slated for launch this year are the following Sidewalks: Chicago, Denver, Houston, San Diego, Washington, D.C., and Sydney, Australia.

Last week, Microsoft relaunched the front door of the main Sidewalk site with a list of cities it intends to launch soon, although it is continually mum on the dates.

San Francisco Sidewalk has been on the launching pad for weeks. There were rumors that it was launching this month, but Frank Schott, general manager of Sidewalk, would not give a precise date.

As previously reported, a Microsoft ad running in a program for the Mill Valley (California) Film Festival last week read: "Log on to '' October 8 to enter our contest" to win prizes such as an NEC computer.

While Sidewalk executives say the project is doing quite well, both with advertisers and with surfers looking to find something to do, at least one analyst thinks otherwise.

Bill Bass, an analyst at Forrester Research, said that advertising on the localized content services--including Sidewalk, America Online's DigitalCity, and CitySearch, among others--is 70 percent less effective than traditional advertising.

But Schott said last week Web traffic is up and "repeat users are steadily increasing in every city." He added that advertisers are also pleased. "There's a place where I think we've scored some pretty big wins."

Advertisers, he noted, come to Sidewalk to get the attention of the users the service is trying to attract: people who are looking for things to do in their free time.

Bass is generally pessimistic about stand-alone localized content sites, predicting that business will pick up in the next year and then die down. "Until you get a constant connection, we don't think these services will be very popular.

"By 2001, Sidewalk's going to be losing 30 percent," he said. But, he added, Sidewalk won't be alone. "[The local guides] are all going to be losing money."

Rather, Bass is expecting that the sites that will make it are the ones that already have brand loyalty (and the ad revenues online ventures are trying to steal): newspapers, local television stations, and to a lesser extent, telephone companies.

Mark Mooradian, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, agreed that newspapers have a major advantage over start-up localized content sites in that they already have a market presence and loyalty. But he said that this does not necessarily sound the death knell for non-newspaper localized sites.

Bass and Mooradian agreed that there may not be a pot of gold at the end of the localized content rainbow, but there may be enough gold dust to go around. If newspapers don't jump online, other services such as Sidewalk are going to jump in to fill the void, Mooradian added.

Meanwhile, Schott said Sidewalk is continue to focus on "news you can use," giving readers quick, easily digestible information. For instance, he noted traffic information was so popular with Seattle Sidewalk that it's being added to other services.

"We've found that people wanted something that would help them make decisions, and generally speaking, they wanted a point of view that supported that decision-making process. You'll see us move into other categories with time-compressed lifestyles where we can help [users] make decisions."

Internet news editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.