Can Microsoft Beat Facebook?

Microsoft’s new social media platform, Spindex, could become a leading social site, especially for business users. Or it could fail miserably.
Some company will own the default destination for social networking. And whoever does will rule the Web. Facebook? Twitter? Google? LinkedIn?

How about Microsoft? No, really!

The company unveiled at the Web 2.0 Expo event this week in San Francisco, Calif., a new service called Spindex. It’s a social media aggregator that brings together feeds from Facebook, Twitter and RSS feeds and enables you to interact with them from a single view.

It's hard to predict whether Microsoft Spindex will succeed or fail. Based on what we know, however, we can come up with best- and worst-case scenarios.

The worst-case scenario is that Spindex will become a two-bit FriendFeed clone disadvantaged by late entry to the game and by support for a fraction of the services that the real FriendFeed supports.

The best-case scenario is a service so useful that it becomes the best and the most popular social site ever, especially for business users.

The Spindex Vision

We don't know what Spindex will be like to use. But we do know what Microsoft is planning. And those plans look very good. Here are the four potential strengths of Spindex:

1. Contacts

What's in your contacts application, really? It's the people you know. It's your social network.

Microsoft envisions Spindex as an alternative not so much to Facebook or even Friendfeed, but to a Rolodex. It's a contact database, with extensive links to your social groups' online activities and comments. And that's the right vision.

Instead of your contacts application being an address book, with name, title, phone number, e-mail address and mailing address, the Spindex vision of a "Rolodex" is all that plus relevant public activities and comments by that person. Before a business meeting, you could use Spindex to get a complete picture of what that person is up to.

It would also be great if Microsoft includes some way to surface a personal-contact history with that person -- when you last met, what you talked about on e-mail, and so on.

2. Curation

Curation is the newest annoying social media buzzword. It means simply the organization, care and maintenance of valuable information so it can be used later.

While many social services are focused on real-time data -- the "right now" of social media -- Spindex emphasizes the future and the past. It squirrels away the activity of your social network and your RSS feeds for the future. When you want to know something, it surfaces what happened in the past in a relevant, useable way.

Spindex becomes your own private Google. Search engines like Google and Bing index the Web -- everybody's web for everybody's use. Spindex indexes your own private Web, and lets you control it. For example, you can delete things that you feel have no value.

Spindex achieves this in part through integration with the popular online service Evernote. Your curated content shows up in Evernote, which is capable of retaining all major forms of media (audio, video, text, graphic, etc.), and it indexes everything it can. For example, Evernote even indexes the words that show up in pictures.

3. Trends

One way to envision Spindex is this: Aggregate your Facebook, Twitter and RSS reader feeds into a single view. But then the software would surface real trends that emerge from the chaos.

Microsoft views Spindex as a personal data-mining application. Lili Cheng, general manager of Microsoft's Future Social Experiences (FUSE) Labs, which is building Spindex, says that the service brings to the surface trends among topics discussed by everyone you know.

Microsoft says this happens intelligently. Instead of just showing the same, predictable trends every day (Cheng suggested that "iPad" would otherwise trend at the top every day), Spindex digs down and finds trends within the trends -- for example, what particular subtopic of "iPad" is trending?

One of the reasons people read newspapers, catch up on e-mail and check Facebook before work is to know what's going on in the world so they can interact with peers as an informed person. Spindex's trends feature could give you a snapshot of important news, with an emphasis on what your peer group is talking about.

4. Context

Spindex is integrated into Microsoft's Bing search engine. It automatically finds content on the Internet related to whatever your friends and followers are talking about on social networks.

We've all experienced the "what the heck are they talking about" syndrome of Twitter. For example, who are these Don and Betty people that Slate Magazine editors are always talking about?

Microsoft says Spindex is joined at the hip with its Bing search engine. When people are talking about things, related search results automatically appear to answer the questions before you ask them. Without clicking on anything, Spindex would show that Don and Betty are characters on the TV show, "Mad Men."

Spindex is currently usable only by attendees of the Web 2.0 Expo. But they'll soon open up the site for public beta. You can get on the list to beta-test Spindex by request.

You can also get notifications about Spindex progress on the Spindex Twitter feed.

Ultimately, the winner of the social media game will be the company that can convince the most users to serve as the social aggregation home base. And I believe that's where people choose to maintain their contacts.

Right now, Facebook is dominating. Can Microsoft come from behind and steal the lead?

I think Spindex actually looks promising. Microsoft has the right ideas, and also the technology to back them up. Spindex success, however, depends on execution.

If Microsoft gets it right, this could be a game changer.




Tags: Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, social media, LinkedIn


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