By Jay Garmon
Microsoft is going to war with Facebook. That’s the hidden message in the launch of the Outlook Social Connector, a surprisingly un-Microsoft-like feature debuting in the beta release of MS Office 2010 today.
The Outlook Social Connector, nicknamed the “People Pane,” imports social network data into your contact list, potentially displaying the recent online activity of everyone you know. The idea is to give context to your contacts and to make Outlook 2010 a tool for consuming and managing the rising tide of social data available today. If any recipients of an email or attendees at a meeting have recently blogged, RSVP’d for a Facebook event, or tweeted an interesting link, Outlook 2010 will show that data in their People Pane.
“The original social network is your inbox,” said Dev Balasubramanian, Microsoft’s Outlook Product Manager. Put another way, Outlook used to be the central way you connected to everyone you knew online. Your Outlook contacts once exclusively contained the data you use to address e-mails, snail mails, phone calls, calendar appointments and even instant messages. And for a lot of people, that’s still true. According to Balasubramanian, “The average information worker has Outlook open over one-third of the time they’re at their desk.”
Contrast that with data that shows Facebook owns nearly 5 percent of all Internet pageviews. Social networking sites like Facebook, Linkedin, and (to a lesser degree) Twitter are rapidly displacing e-mail and Outlook as the lynch pin of your online relationships. More simply, Facebook is the new Outlook. The Outlook Social Connector is Microsoft’s first bid to win back its place on the throne by importing Twitter updates and Facebook status into your inbox.
Microsoft will publish a Outlook Social Connector Software Development Kit along with the Office 2010 beta today. The SDK will allow anyone to build data feeders, called Providers, that import syndicated social data into Outlook 2010. Think of the Provider as a converter that turns a social network’s API into a kind of RSS feed for outlook. For services like Twitter that have an open API, anyone can use theSDK to build a Twitter Provider for Outlook. Thus, even if Twitter itself doesn’t treasure the possibility of Outlook becoming the market-leading Twitter client, odds are somebody (probably several somebodies) out there will build a Twitter Provider for Outlook 2010. If Twitter itself does decide to build an official Twitter Provider, Microsoft will publish it to MS Office Online.
The gamble Microsoft is taking is in assuming that these social networks are willing to let Outlook back into the game, especially after Facebook has done such an effective job of building a walled garden for its data, forcing you to visiting your Facebook profile to receive most of your Facebook updates. Presumably Microsoft will make it worth their while, either by touting the Outlook install base (an argument that likely isn’t going to impress Facebook, which has an equally if not more massive user base) or by noting that the builders of walled gardens don’t have to break down any more walls than they please. As Balasubramanian noted, “Third parties can have control of how data lives offline in Outlook. That’s the only way we can have an open enough platform … to get other networks excited about the opportunity.”
If Facebook doesn’t want to publish status updates to the official Facebook Provider, they don’t have to, because Facebook can build the Provider to its own specifications. But if Facebook wants to block anyone from building a status-inclusive Facebook Provider, they’ll have to remove status updates from the Facebook API, which isn’t likely to happen.
For the moment, the Outlook Social Connector isn’t much of a threat to either Facebook or popular social networking desktop clients like Tweetdeck. First, because the only external service the Social Connector will natively connect with is Microsoft Sharepoint. (Though LinkedIn will the first offical third-party OSC Provider.) By the time MS Office 2010 is released next year, that number will likely be much different. “We’ll be successful [on launch day] if you click on that [Add a Provider] button and we have a half dozen or a dozen social networks to connect to,” Balasubramanian said.
Secondly, the Outlook Social Connector isn’t a launch-day threat to Tweetdeck because the OSC is currently only a consumer of social data, not a publisher. You won’t be updating your Facebook status from your inbox today, or sending Tweets along with your Outlook meeting request. All that could change faster than you think, especially if you expect progress at the normal MS Office update cycle. Balasubramanian sets expectations as such: “From here on out [the Outlook Social Connector] will be a core piece of the Outlook experience. We’ll look to revise this thing on a regular basis. In the world of social networking, if we want to stay current we have to move at that speed. I can’t even predict how that will play out … [but] we will have resources to move at that speed.”
It remains to be seen how Facebook and company respond.