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Microsoft-backed site set to compete with MySpace

LONDON - A Microsoft-backed US company has launched a test version of a Flash-based social networking site that will be ad-free and make money from getting users to pay to add cool graphics and features to their personal homepages.

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Wallop began life as a research project within Microsoft before it was spun out as a separate company with backing from Microsoft, Bay Partners and Consor Capital. It has just secured an additional $10m (£5.2m) investment from the latter two and a new investor, Norwest Capital Partners.

The beta version of its site, also called Wallop, launched yesterday and can be joined only by invitation, which may be done via application.

The launch will help Microsoft's efforts to stay at the forefront of trends on the web. The Seattle-based company last week launched the beta version of its video sharing site Soapbox, which it hopes will rival YouTube.

Wallop claims its site is easier to use and personalise than established offerings such as MySpace and Facebook, because it uses a different interface and Flash add-ons. Unlike its rivals it will not carry ads, which have been a recent battleground. Microsoft has just signed a deal to handle all the advertising for Facebook over the next three years, giving it sole rights to banner ads and sponsored links on the site. That deal followed a similar deal between MySpace and Google worth $900m.

On Wallop, users can add interactive graphics and features to their profile, some of which will be free, but others users will have to pay for.

Wallop also promises that members will have a high level of control over who can see what on their profile.

The people behind the site are Sean Kelly and Karl Jacob. Jacob, an entrepreneur, discovered Kelly working on the concept at Microsoft and persuaded him to co-found the spin-off.

Jacob, CEO of Wallop, has taken the role of evangelist for the site.

"After taking a long hard look at social computing, it became clear that it is not simply about the technology, which has been limited and plagued with problems to date," he said. "It's about the trend of self-expression moving online, creating enormous demand for easy and limitless customisation and an enlightened social experience where the user is in control."

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