Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), which recently took the first tentative steps into computer hardware development with its new Surface tablet, is now wading into even muddier waters of the tech industry: social media.
The Redmond, Wash.-based U.S. tech giant announced Tuesday that it is introducing its very own social network, known as Socl (pronounced “social”) to the public after more than a year of private beta testing by Microsoft's Fuse Labs and a soft launch targeted primarily at college students last May.
The social network is powered by Microsoft’s search engine Bing, and it allows users to create visual posts clustered around popular themes in a manner similar to the popular startup service Pinterest.
“Socl began as an experiment in social search for students and learning,” a blog post from Fuse Labs said on Tuesday. “Over the past several months, we’ve watched Socl evolve into a place where people connect over shared interests expressed through beautiful post collages.”
Microsoft was quick to note that it saw the new network more as a social experiment than a direct competitor to other popular services like Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) and Twitter. Anyone with a Facebook or Microsoft account can join the network simply by syncing their pre-existing accounts. Posts made on Socl can then be shared on Facebook or Twitter as well.
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"Socl is an experimental research project with a minimal set of features," the website said.
Despite its understated approach, Socl does offer a few clever features already. Additions to posts known as “riffs” allow users to add new images to an ongoing post as a way to “continue a conversation visually.” The network also balances a focus between individual users and larger subjects, walking a line between the open-ended asymmetrical relationship of following users on Twitter (and being followed in turn) and the one-to-one relationship of a Facebook friendship.
“Socl is an open social network where people connect around posts and choose to follow people, interests, or both,” the site said in a description. “While you may discover some of your Facebook friends on Socl, you will more likely discover new people or topics you’d like to follow.”
The site features a “People” hub where users can discover new profiles and posts along with a “Me” page for users to monitor and update their own feed. Similar to Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) Google+, users can also form ad hoc web video meetings, and create playlists, watch other video clips, or chat with other users.
The question that many social media users and analysts alike ask whenever a new social network is introduced is how the new platform will hope to differentiate itself from internet juggernauts like Facebook and Twitter or rising stars like Pinterest. Google’s ambitious entry into the field last year was ultimately labeled a disaster by many tech writers despite its continued improvements and updates.
But posing Socl as an “experiment” more than a fully-fledged social network could allow Microsoft to find its own niche as a platform as the company continues to expand its mobile and cloud-based services such as the new Smartglass app and its music-streaming service Xbox music.
Such experimentation could also help social networking, a phenomenon that is still largely fueled by Silicon Valley alone, expand to other markets outside of a tech and gadget-friendly western audience.
Richard Edwards, an analyst at research firm Ovum told the BBC that other areas of the world are still "ripe for a new type of social network".
In September, Microsoft also partnered with the social media startup Klout to integrate the social network with the Bing search engine.
Microsoft stock jumped 1.14 percent during trading Wednesday, closing at $26.67 per share.