Thursday, February 10, 2005

Diamonds in the Rough of Redmond

Well, my fourth column is going up tomorrow (every thursday), but here is a sneak peek:

Diamonds in the Rough at Redmond
There's a lot brewing in Microsoft's Social Computing Group—including a new paradigm for email and a social networking environment that could 'Wallop' the competition.

I actually wanted to write about more interesting applications and research I saw at Microsoft, but I was too busy this week so I had to shorten the piece. Not at this time either since I have to go to sleep now. I'll save it for another day.

UPDATE: Since AlwaysOn's old pages were deleted and I don't think they will restore it for a while here is the article cut from MSWord (This was a Best of AO article for 2005):

Diamonds in the Rough of Redmond
There's a lot brewing in Microsoft's Social Computing Group—including a new paradigm for email and a social networking environment that could 'Wallop' the competition.

I had a chance a couple weeks ago to visit Microsoft Research’s Social Computing Group in Redmond and speak with Lili Cheng, who is the Group Manager, on some of the cool stuff they are working on in the space of social computing, blogs, and virtual worlds. Lili has been at Microsoft Research for over ten years now and she started in their virtual world group which was eventually renamed the social computing group.

“[At the virtual world group] We designed all these communities and groups, but we started to ask how do people actually think about themselves and the people they interact with, so about five years ago this led to the forming of the social computing group. We started with this little project called the “personal map.” We went to a mall and wrote down the people we cared about. People drew who they cared about and started with the most important people and put them in clusters. We looked at people’s contact lists on their computers and typically they didn’t have them. A lot of times it was just a short or long alphabetical list. What we did was we said there must be some way we can automatically do this for people. So we looked at our emails, scan it, and built this (graphical) personal map based on who you communicate with. So as I email you and others, it dynamically creates these clusters of people around you. The system can organize your email based on how you communicate.”

This simple exercise and program, which would be the basis of future applications, was interesting since you don’t have to input or do anything. It dynamically changes over time. The system automatically adds people to your list and groups them based on who you email and copy. The cool application of this idea was an email program called “inner circle,” which was the Social Computing Group’s effort to make email better. “Inner circle” alphabetically orders a list of the top forty people you interact with, and dynamically changes over time as you change who you communicate with. It also naturally works out that the top people are your list are those you care about the most. In terms of functionality, you can click on a person and it shows all the conversations you had with that person and any relevant documents or links that were sent. You can also mark and item and share it other people on your list.

Lili went on to describe an experiment they ran, “We compared this email system to a search-based email client (folders). It was really interesting because search was faster, but our test group significantly liked this one [“inner circle”] the best. I think it was because with search you know things are there but you don’t feel confident that things are being organized for you. So you still have that angst of totally not organizing anything because you don’t trust it enough. So they like to see the people being organized in the system for them.”

I thought this was a very cool and appealing email service. Why didn’t Microsoft already integrate this into Hotmail or Outlook? Outlook would be an integration that makes sense since it is typically work related emails with your important personal contacts spotted throughout your address book. I also thought if it could be effectively integrated into Hotmail there would be an appeal similar to Google’s Gmail service, and create a shift back to Hotmail as a primary account for those attracted to Gmail’s unique functionality and structure. Hotmail managers should seriously think about integrating “inner circle” to their service.

Wallop is the group social network and blogging environment. The service got some press over a year ago (“Will Microsoft Wallop Friendster?”), but hasn’t seen much since. I’ve been trying out Wallop over the past week and I like it. I’m tired of most of these social networking sites (beside awesome content-based ones like AlwaysOn), but I believe it would have done well if it was taken to market especially last summer. As Friendster fizzled out and MySpace took over, Wallop can be a replacement if the MySpace fad dies out.

Its user interface is clean and easy to navigate. There are drop-down menus and drag and drop functionality for moving text, pictures, and music. There is a level of interactivity that isn’t available on other sites. You can post comments on almost anything on friend’s page, such as a picture or text. You can mark an item on a person’s page as a “favorite” not just the overall profile of a hot guy or girl. There is also a self-policing function where you can report “bad content.” There is also a graphic map of your network and how each person is connected to you, which I thought was cool. You can also import content from another blog onto your Wallop blog pages, and post and respond to messages through email. I like this better than Microsoft’s other effort into the social networking space, ThreeDegrees, which is too simplistic and dumb-down.

Lili explains, “Wallop was about creating a different model of communication. The intent wasn’t to create a social network or blog. It wasn’t to create large networks of people. It has a different center.”

I guess the question is whether Microsoft wants to add to the fad pot or not, or can it develop Wallop into a longer-lasting application integrated with some of its other product offerings. Either way, Wallop gets my vote for kicking Friendster, MySpace, and Orkut’s butt.

A light application called “flipper” was a great extension of Wallop on your desktop. It’s a small screen on your desktop that pushes to you pictures and personal posts from your social network, and it has a flip button where you can quickly flip through whatever recent activities people were doing on Wallop.

“I love this one because you think of the presence of people you cared about in a peripheral but light and fun way,” Cheng stated.

There were some other cool products which I will hopefully write about later, but overall I was impressed with the cool and cutting-edge developments Microsoft Research was working on (as an Apple fan and one who loosely called Microsoft “the evil empire” I feel dirty now).

I asked Lili why some of these applications and research hasn’t been integrated into Microsoft’s products, which she replied, “Product teams have different cycles. We can prototype stuff faster than they can actually build… We’re only nine people, so we have to pick and choose carefully to present to the product people. In some sense we are like a startup group in Microsoft that has to pitch to other groups for them to learn and consider our ideas.”

There are definitely some diamonds in this rough of Redmond.

No comments: