Microsoft's just revealed an enhancement to Outlook that adds in direct connections to LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook so that you can access all these services from the one place. Is this MS's answer to Google Buzz? Almost.
These enhancements are enabled by the Outlook Social Connector (OSC) tool, revealed back in November 2009 at the same time as MS Office 2010. As Microsoft notes in a blog posting revealing the news, the company's vision "is to provide a communications hub that is vital to both professional and personal communications" and by agglomerating all of this inside Outlook you'll be able to connect "not only to co-workers and colleagues, but with all of your friends and family."
Here's the most carefully-constructed bit of the plan, though: The OSC is designed to deal with multiple privacy and permissions settings across the range of professional and social networks it now integrates with. If, for example, your job description and profile pic are public data on one network, they'll be shared with other OSC users if you email them. And if you keep certain data private on one of the social nets, it'll remain private. MS even notes that "The goal of the OSC is not to create another social network or set of privacy settings for you to manage, but rather to bring the networks you already value and use to the Outlook experience."
Does this sound familiar? It should bring to your mind echoes of Google Buzz—Google's social sharing network/aggregator service that launched so clumsily last week. One complaint oft levied against Buzz online (and in our Fast Company editors chatroom too) went along the lines of "Great. Another social network I've got to join up to and follow other people and stuff in!" But MS, while trying to do something a little similar, has treaded a more cautious route: It's not launching its own new social net, but is integrating other existing ones into its premier email app. By targeting professional social nets, MS is also making a clever marketing move—especially since Outlook is most heavily used by business people.
And it's also clear that MS is being extremely careful to protect user's data privacy, having learned probably more from Facebook's frequent mistakes less than Google's most recent Buzz mess-ups. So is the OSC Microsoft's answer to Buzz? You betcha. Only MS has had this baby in the pipeline for a while, so perhaps Buzz is more properly Google's answer to the OSC. LinkedIn for Outlook is out now, but the MySpace and Facebook apps will arrive later alongside Outlook 2010...even if it's still slightly incredible that there's interest at senior MS levels in the dying MySpace.
There's one last thing this has made us think, though. If Buzz is acting as one social net integrator, MS Outlook is acting as another and even AIM is integrating Facebook statuses in its own social network—is the real future of social networking as a complex network of networks? Will this aggregation rob each network of some of its individual identity?