Strange once again to see Microsoft handed its head by one of the few companies more hated than itself. First America Online took Bill &

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A tale of two cities

Strange once again to see Microsoft handed its head by one of the few companies more hated than itself. First America Online took Bill & Co. to school on how to operate an online service (although watching MSN vs. AOL was a bit like watching rats fighting pigeons, I wasn't necessarily thrilled to see Steve Case's soulless minions take the win). Now the folks at Sidewalk have been pushed under the wheels of Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch.

On one level this is just another game of property ping-pong: Microsoft unloads a property it never quite found the motivation to develop broadscale whilst getting a nice chunk of TMCS stock in the deal. On another level, this is one of those rare and wonderful moments of Microsoft retreat. But the rich joy you would expect to feel is absent, because the Redmond menace is crying uncle not to the forces of good (like Linux, say, or those nice people at Intuit) but to Satan's scalpers. Ain't no joy in that. At least AOL has the "you've got mail!" guy.

There is nothing to like about Ticketmaster in the age of the Internet. Ticketmaster is the Diamond Parking of live events: It overcharges you for the privilege of bad service, holding you up on your way to where you really want to go. At least the parking-lot people give you a place to stash your vehicle. In a wired world, where conceivably every venue or artist could ticket online and automation could handle the logistics of ticket printing and billing, it feels like simple robbery.

(Please note that as a good Joe Hill-style leftist I am almost never in favor of losing jobs to automation. However, if you've ever called Ticketmaster's sales-by-phone lines you'll understand me when I say that the phone bank is depriving villages across the country of their idiots. Let my pea brains go!)

Worst of all, back in 1997 a pre-CitySearch Ticketmaster pitched a fit when Microsoft wouldn't pony up cash to link to them. TM chose first to block Microsoft from linking to purchasing pages for specific events, then to sue Microsoft for linking to those pages. The resultant legal battle not only had a chilling effect on the previously link-friendly Web culture but paved the way for portals that stressed corporate deal-making over quality links. If you hate what formerly great sites like Yahoo and Altavista have become, or if you're a small, independent site that can't compete with the deal-making, stock-swapping behemoths, or if you're simply down with Eddie Vedder, spare at least a word or two of invective for Ticketmaster.

So this sale hurts. And though partner CitySearch does a good impression of a city guide in many urban centers around the world, I'm sorry to see Sidewalk crack—even though I think that in most communities CitySearch does a better job. (Most, but not here: Ironically, Microsoft put all that money into nation-wide city guides and succeeded in doing only one really well, and that was Seattle's.) If Bill & Co. had only been honest with themselves about this, they could have written the whole thing off as "giving back to the community" and gotten a charity deduction on the deal.

So what was the problem out of town? Next to Seattle's guides, I'm most familiar with those for New York, surely a city in need of guidance if ever there was. Where newyork.sidewalk was concerned, I always sensed that Gotham was the city that got away; the staff were either not numerous enough to tame the beast or they weren't allowed to stray too far from their offices. Newyork.sidewalk never gave me the sense of really knowing the nooks and crannies of that fair and fetid city, and any New Yorker can tell you that getting by in The City is all about knowing the angles.

For Seattle, though, Sidewalk worked great—maybe because there was less terrain to cover, maybe because Seattle is less about angles and more about aerodynamics. Seattle.sidewalk did a nice job; its tourist recommendations were fun and comprehensive enough to send to relatives planning to visit, and the writing was often quite nice. Strange to rue a loss for Microsoft; stranger still the victor.

 
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