I sat down with eBay’s Max Mancini today at Web 2.0 Expo in New York. Max is the company’s Senior Director, Platform and Disruptive Innovation. That title sounds fluffy and new but Max isn’t a new hire, he’s been with eBay for close to five years and in the middle of the company’s mobile and social networking experiments. Here’s what he told me:

On mobile

EBay is looking at mobile extensions with buyers in mind, but not sellers. The company wants to offer ways to help you bid or track auctions from your phone (currently an iPhone app), and it wants to let you check eBay for price comparisons while you’re at the store. But why no focus on mobile extensions for the seller?

I asked why eBay doesn’t develop an app, for example, that lets casual sellers take photos from the iPhone and create a new listing on the spot, instead of going through photo download/upload on the PC. Mancini said that Project Echo, eBay’s developer program, is how it intends to service casual sellers through third party apps, and that serious sellers need a different kind of service than mobile interfaces and apps anyway.

I also asked why eBay is looking at mobile as a way for customers to connect to the platform but not to humans on the other side of the deal? Max said carriers don’t like Skype. So eBay doesn’t even bring up communications with them.

As for eBay’s development priorities vis-à-vis mobile platform wars, eBay sees most of its mobile activity happening at its mobile site, so it isn’t moving full steam to build applications on every major platform, just the iPhone. (Meanwhile, Big in Japan, another app that does price comparisons, won the first Android Developer Challenge, as we covered yesterday.)

On social networks

One interesting exploration is whether and how social connections between friends (the so-called “social graph”) can enhance seller trust ratings and thus facilitate purchases on eBay. EBay’s first exploration — or the “first inning,” as Mancini described it — was playing with Facebook apps. It built one, called eBay Marketplace, which lets you see what your friends are buying on eBay. This is somewhat similar to Facebook’s own Beacon advertising program. Note, eBay was an early Beacon experimenter. The company concluded that people want to keep social and commerce activities separate.

Instead of building social networking applications that live on other sites, eBay sees more promise in tying friend relationship data from social networks into its own interface in order prompt new purchases. Facebook will soon offer a way to do this through a forthcoming service called Connect. Meanwhile, rival MySpace already offers a software programming-heavy version called Data Availability, although eBay isn’t using it.

In any case, eBay’s conclusion about the futility of social network apps is somewhat misguided. It is not the first marketer to express frustration about that. The problem is maybe in expectations. For example, when my Facebook friend is notified that I just bought a particular digital camera through Beacon (or eBay’s marketplace app), they probably won’t immediately run to buy it. We already know that people don’t impulsively buy things from a social network in the same way they do at a retail store.

The problem is in figuring out to what extent that same piece of information influences my friend when they go to buy a digital camera at some point in the future. Will my friend remember my notification? Will they look for it on eBay? How much weight does my opinion have with them, anyway?

Social graphing will be crucial to influencing product and media consumption decisions — but they aren’t, always. We’ll see who cooks up an execution with measurable utility first.

[Image of Mancini via Dow Jones]

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