Microsoft's So.cl experiment

The tech giant's foray into social media is all about helping Bing because there is no chance So.cl is ever going to be a realistic rival to Facebook or Google .

Microsoft So.cl is not a fully-fledged social network. It is far too early to even suggest it could be a rival to Google or Facebook, and the chances are it never will be. The fact that So.cl is targeted at students echoes Facebook’s beginnings, and has made many assume it is a Facebook clone.

So.cl is very much an experiment, and Microsoft is sensible to position it in this way. It is the opposite approach to Google, which entered social networking all guns blazing with a full service in the shape of Google . So.cl will most likely remain an experiment, which is no bad thing; Microsoft will still walk away with valuable insights and experiences that can help improve its overall search capabilities.

So.cl is not a social network

So.cl is a project developed by Microsoft’s FUSE Labs, which works with product research and development teams on new web and social tools. The service has been kept intentionally under the radar, having been quietly released last year on a trial basis to students at a small number of US colleges and universities. Last week Microsoft made it more widely available for a public beta test, and this has been widely reported as though Microsoft is preparing full-on assault on social networking, positioning So.cl as a rival to Facebook and Google .

This is not the case, or at least certainly not at the moment. So.cl is powered by Bing, and is all about social search and sharing photos, videos, and messages. It has very few features or applications beyond this, and nowhere near the kind of value-add offered by Facebook or even Google .

It is all about helping Bing

Microsoft has been at pains to stress that So.cl is “an experimental research project focused on the future of social experiences”. Moreover, it can be seen as a complement to existing social networks; for example, you can sign into So.cl via a Facebook account as well as using a Windows Live ID. Microsoft says So.cl is also intended to be used alongside Bing, Microsoft’s own search engine, which is also being enriched with social features.

That Bing powers So.cl, and that Bing is increasingly focused on social search, in Ovum’s view underscores the experimental nature of So.cl. It means that Microsoft has the option to walk away from So.cl, taking with it valuable insights that can help improve the search capabilities of Bing, which is a major priority for the company.

Microsoft is desperate to win market share from Google, which continues to dominate the search market. At the same time, Facebook is becoming an increasingly important driver of search traffic, raising the question of whether it will move to directly harness search advertising revenues. In this context, we would imagine that Google is spending more time thinking about the ramifications of So.cl for its search business, rather than any impact the project might have on Google .

So.cl is no challenger to Facebook or Google

Should So.cl gain significant traction, which once again we think unlikely, then Microsoft might well ramp up the service with additional features. Mobile may be of particular interest, as Microsoft could tap into the capabilities of the Windows Phone device software platform and the installed base of Windows Phone users. Direct control over a device platform is something Facebook currently lacks, unlike Google, which has the Android OS.

Positioning So.cl as a fully-fledged social network designed to take on Facebook, Google , and others would be an enormous gamble, and one that would most likely fail. Google , which launched in June 2011, has experienced modest growth, with around 25 million registered users in August 2011, although Comscore has reported that usage is slowing. Even Facebook has acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges it faces is keeping users active and engaged to current levels.

In our view So.cl will remain an experimental social search service, and one that will no doubt see Microsoft testing out other social features going forward. Such developments will most likely be of ultimate benefit to Bing rather than lead to a full-blown social network that competes head-on with the likes of Facebook.  

Eden Zoller is a principal analyst in Ovum Telecom’s Consumer Practice, covering communications, content, applications, and social media.

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