What's It Up to? Secretive Pingpong Still Won't Tell

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pingpong.com--one of the start-ups to spring from Kingston Technology Co.'s unusual in-house incubator program--plans to change the way people navigate the Web to find information.

And someday, the Fountain Valley company will be willing to talk about what it's developing.

Pingpong has quietly plugged away at its line of Web applications for months. In doing so, the company has created a curious rumble throughout Orange County's technology community, as people wonder, "What exactly are those guys working on?"

Of course, it helps that the company's financial backers--Kingston founders John Tu and David Sun--made national news last winter when they announced that they were using their personal and corporate fortunes to give Kingston employees whatever they need to bootstrap a new business.

Each time the media covered Kingston's unconventional business practices, there was Pingpong. And each time, Pingpong officials politely declined to talk about what they were doing.

Then there are Pingpong's ties to the computer-game community. The staff, many of whom are avid game players, have created online teams and routinely challenge others to jump into a quick round of digital bloodshed over the Internet. And they showed up at an underground video-game party in Irvine on New Year's Eve, where they spent three days playing games and handing out bumper stickers with the company's logo.

No one talked about what Pingpong makes. However, gamers dubbed the company's corporate logo--a yellow block with a black spiral behind the name--as "really cool."

"There's always been some appeal to being mysterious in marketing," said Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. "It works really well for established brands, such as Chanel or Rolls-Royce. For a lot of these young companies on the Web, it's harder to pull off."

Such shyness flies in the face of traditional marketing plans for young "dot-coms," where the story on the Web has been all about guerrilla marketing, word-of-mouth buzz and public flash. Big parties with open bars, expensive gifts and lots of celebrities--both of the Hollywood and the venture capital type--have become the norm.

Indeed, at this week's Spring Internet World 2000 in Los Angeles, more than 500 Net businesses will descend upon the Convention Center to promote their latest and greatest products.

And Pingpong will be there. Company officials still aren't showing off their entire technology line, but they are going to talk about their "philosophy" and give the first glimpse of their software "to a select audience," said Gary MacDonald, chief executive of Pingpong and former vice president of sales and marketing for Kingston.

The ideas driving Pingpong, its founders say, are threefold: navigation, privacy and personalization. People search the Web but sometimes can't find what they want. They want information tailored to their needs and interests, yet often the price for such customization is giving up personal data.

The solution, Pingpong officials say, is a software application that works in conjunction with a Web browser. As a person surfs the Web, Pingpong's software engine will scour the Net and automatically offer direct links to other pages that are relevant to the one being viewed. The software, officials promise, can be tailored to anticipate a user's preferences. It also includes security features that "protect the privacy of the Web user," MacDonald said.

The company declined to demonstrate its software to reporters late last week.

"I know that there has to be a better way to get information off the Web and still be able to maintain your privacy," MacDonald said. "But we're still in ramp-up mode, so we're not going to give away everything [this week]." The company expects to officially launch its product before year's end.

Despite its hush-hush approach, Pingpong's vision was enough to convince Tu and Sun to help finance the upstart. So far the two have helped launch 23 companies, from restaurants to Web developers. That assistance has ranged from legal help and business advice to seed money and free office space.

In the building next to Kingston's headquarters, the young staff of Pingpong sits in offices once occupied by Kingston networking and technical-support staff.

Many of the employees--there are 45 full-time staffers and 60 contractors--hail from either high-tech companies or top schools such as Harvard University and Carnegie Mellon. And they have been well-taught in remaining discrete.

As staff workers pound out reams of code, they try to hide what's on their PC monitors from visitors.

"You're not writing all this down, are you?" one employee asked, after speaking about the company's philosophy on searching the Web. "Listen, I'm not saying we're a search engine. I'm not saying that at all."

If they are, they're trying to break into a market that already is oversaturated. There are popular sites such as Yahoo, Excite and Lycos, which have morphed into monstrous slicer-dicer portals offering everything from daily horoscopes to free e-mail.

And there are companies such as Google, a favorite among the Net-savvy, that does nothing but search. It also built up a loyal following by staying relatively quiet--and relying on word-of-mouth support.

The Pingpong crew insist they are working on something different, something better.

"When we're ready, we'll show the world what we're doing," said David Kwan, Pingpong vice president. "We know we've got a good idea."

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