What you need to know about social-network upstart Ello

The company is hoping that simplicity and privacy will win the day -- and more customers.

Ello, a new social networking site, is creating a lot of buzz and raising more than a few questions.

There's one thing, though, that industry analysts agree on: The hype that this new service is even close to being a "Facebook killer" is, especially at this early date, ridiculous.

"It's laughably naïve to call Ello a 'Facebook killer' right now," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Sure, they're getting some media attention right now, but they're a far cry from even appearing on the social networking radar. The splash they're making in the media will drive user counts in the short term but it's going to be very hard to get users to defect to Ello from Facebook or even Google+."

Ello, a social site that launched in on Aug. 7 with just 90 users, has been called the anti-Facebook and the Facebook killer. The network, which is still available by invitation only, doesn't have nearly as many features as social rival Facebook or even Google+.

However, the site is getting as much, or even more, attention for what it doesn't do. Ello does not use advertising and it does not sell users' information to third parties.

And for people who worry about their privacy or simply are tired of seeing "suggested posts" or ads on their social news feeds for everything from dating services to weight-loss pills and anti-aging creams, Ello's promises can sound pretty inviting.

"Your social network is owned by advertisers," Ello executives write on their site. "Every post you share, every friend you make and every link you follow is tracked, recorded and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that's bought and sold. We believe there is a better way."

In an email to Computerworld, an Ello spokeswoman said her company doesn't consider Facebook a direct rival.

"We don't really see ourselves competing with Facebook at all," she added. "We see Facebook as an advertising platform, not a social network. We thought Ello was going to be popular, but how popular it's become has surprised us. I think people are ready for a new kind of social network, untarnished by advertising, and that's simple and easy to use. "

The spokeswoman would not say how many users Ello has signed up in total, but did say they've peaked at 30,000 user invites an hour.

Still, since Facebook has 1.28 billion active monthly users and 1 billion active monthly mobile users, Ello has a long way to go to even begin to shadow Facebook. And though Google has been mum in recent months about its user base for Google+, a year ago the network had about 300 million active monthly users.

Ello has some catching up to do to even be a Google+ killer.

"Ello is new, just starting out," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner. "It has no mobile app and its features have really yet to be defined or tested in the real world. Ello could have a bright future but we will need to wait to see how the developers of Ello progress the service before we can talk about their competition or ultimate success."

The new social network is still in beta. The company has not said when it is expected to officially launch.

"Right now, the biggest priority is to roll out new features, and make sure the community aspect of Ello is flourishing," the company spokeswoman said. "We're listening to the Ello users and realigning features based on user feedback. Along with making sure the site is running well, we're adding new users as we can. Things are still a little buggy, but makes it an exciting adventure for everyone."

The site was developed by a group of seven designers and programmers who wanted their own social network. Paul Budnitz, listed as one of Ello's founders, also is the founder of Budnitz Bicycles and Kidrobot, a company that focuses on toys and clothing.

Berger & Föhr, a Boulder, Colo.-based graphic design and art direction studio , also is listed as one of the forces behind Ello. As is Mode Set, a software consultancy based in Denver.

So if Ello doesn't sell ads or user information, how will the business make money?

According to the company, the site's main features will remain free to users. However, they will sell special features that users might want to add to their account.

"This will be the tricky part but they can charge companies to participate and offer a deeper intimacy between those firms and their customers, as well as more security," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "They can also charge for upgrades, much like "free to play" games do. Dating services, headhunting services and premium Web pages could come at a premium and support the service."

Ello has not said what kinds of services will be for sale.

At this point, Ello has a simple design with a lot of white space. Users can connect with each other, listing each other as "friends" or "noise." Users can follow the people they most care about more closely as "friends." Everyone else goes in the "noise" category, where their posts can be scanned but are not highlighted on the user's account.

Users don't have to worry about hurting anyone's feelings: People won't know if they've been categorized as friends or noise.

Upcoming features include private messaging, auto-pushing posts to other networks and notifications. The site also notes it is working on iOS and Android mobile apps.

"Ello is minimal. It has a clean design and UI, and isn't complicated to use if all of the features worked as advertised," said Gartner's Blau. "Its feature set falls short if you are comparing it to full-featured social networks. But Ello works and the lack of complexity could be a refreshing experience for some as Ello gets straight to the point, which is to simply to see very simple text and imagery postings of the people you are following."

Olds, though, said Ello has an uphill trek ahead of it.

"Ello is more of a hobby gone viral -- the product of a group of folks who are trying to change the laws of Web economics that have been established by giants like Facebook, Google and others," he added. "Today, Ello is a smallish sandcastle on the beach. It might survive the waves for a bit but eventually the ocean wins that battle every time."

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