Microsoft Beats Yahoo and Google to Social Inbox 2.0

Microsoft22 Microsoft Beats Yahoo and Google to Social Inbox 2.0
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Yahoo and Google to turn their e-mail and instant message systems into something closer to social networks. Both companies figured it was futile to take on Facebook and MySpace directly. So they rushed to develop new ways for their users to trade news, photos and so on with the people already in their address books and buddy lists.

The winner of that race is…Microsoft.

Thursday, Microsoft announced a complex new version of the Web sites and PC software that use the Windows Live brand. Over the next two months, the company will introduce dozens of upgraded features involving its e-mail, instant message, calendar, blogging and other services. It will also add some entirely new functions, including group collaboration and photo sharing.

A lot of the effort has gone into weaving the functions of social networks throughout many of these services. For example, the service has a “what’s new” feed, modeled after the Facebook news feed, that can publish short comments by users as well as links to when they take certain actions, like publish new photos. The feed will be displayed on the instant message client and on new profile pages for users. And after you send an e-mail to people who use the new feed, you will see their most recent updates.

Microsoft is also reaching out to draw in information from other sites. Users can add updates from their accounts on services like Yelp, Pandora and Flickr into their “what’s new” feed. They can also bring the list of their friends on other social networks into Microsoft’s new contact manager, called Windows Live People.

“There is not going to be one provider of software and services for the scenarios that are interesting,” said Chris Jones, a Microsoft vice president for Windows Live. “People will be members of many social networks. They will use many different sites to share, different e-mail providers, instant message providers and different types of devices. And in the end, the service that has value will be the one that helps them make sense of it all.”

Yahoo and Google, of course have all sorts of features that let people communicate and share information and photos. Google’s iGoogle personal page and an upcoming revision to the Yahoo home page offer ways to display information from various other sites. But for now, Microsoft offers a more unified approach to collecting information about people from a range of sites and using it in different ways.

Microsoft is not creating many ways to get information out of its systems, however. It doesn’t have the equivalent of Facebook Connect that lets people see their friends on other sites. And it is not enabling social applications from third-party developers on any part of this sprawling set of sites.

Mr. Jones said that the Windows Live profiles are meant to be simple, but they can have links to pages on MySpace or other sites that do allow applications. He said the company would eventually develop methods to export some of the data it keeps about users to other sites.

In addition, Microsoft is updating its SkyDrive service that stores files on its server and Windows Live Sync (formerly know as FolderShare) that keeps copies of files identical on two separate computers.
Microsoft takes a lot of heat, much of it deserved, for its plodding nature and overly complex software. Since the services haven’t been introduced yet, I can’t tell how well these new Windows Live features work. But the fact that the company is the first to actually introduce social networking features to its e-mail is a sign of Microsoft’s discipline, or maybe the lack of resolve at Google and Yahoo. Or both.

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