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Bill Gates is backing a new social recommendation app

Screenshots from Likewise, a Bill Gates-backed recommendations app
Photo: Likewise

Bill Gates is not giving up on saving the world, but he is helping launch a new social recommendation engine. Likewise, as the iOS and Android app is known, is designed to be a place to get trusted recommendations on everything from restaurants to books, movies and TV shows.

Why it matters: It won't cure polio or fix the U.S. education system, but Likewise could fill a niche helping people keep track of the books and TV shows their friends recommend as well as to discover new places.

The free app, which launches today, began as the brainchild of Larry Cohen, a longtime Gates aide who serves as CEO of Gates Ventures. The Microsoft co-founder is funding the Bellevue, Wash.-based company, which has been working for nearly a year and has about 20 employees.

“It’s not the next Office, but there’s a real need here,” Cohen told Axios. Cohen is chairman of Likewise, with his onetime Microsoft colleague Ian Morris serving as CEO.

Not ratings: While there are plenty of sites that offer crowdsourced reviews with numeric ratings, Cohen and Morris say most people are looking for positive recommendations. "You don’t call your friend and say 'I’m going to Boston — what are some places I should avoid?' " Morris said.

The details:

  • As on Twitter, people's postings are public by default, though there is an option to keep things private.
  • The app will be available in the U.S. and Canadian app stores, with some data on 115 cities. The company, though, is focusing its marketing push on making the service robust in Seattle, hoping efforts there can serve as a blueprint for expansion

The key hurdle: Even with Gates' backing, Likewise faces an uphill battle to get critical mass."That is the biggest challenge any app faces, certainly one with a social component," Morris said.The app hopes to generate some initial interest with recommendations from Gates, as well as other celebrities including Tom Friedman, Bono and Howard Schultz.

Over time, though, the main goal is to be a place to get suggestions from your own trusted circle of friends.

There are also some external data sources so that people don't have to start with a blank slate, including restaurant recommendations from Vox Media's Eater.

Likewise also hopes to expand to new categories over time, including perhaps podcasts, electronics and recipes. While there is no current effort to monetize, Cohen says there are lots of options down the road given that the very nature of the app means its users are close to making purchasing decisions.

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