Microsoft is planning to incorporate social networking features into its MSN Spaces blog publishing and hosting service and build in support for its lightweight applications called Gadgets.
The new features are being tested by MSN Spaces users in Australia and the Netherlands, and are designed to foster user interaction, said Karin Muskopf, MSN product manager.
"We've heard from our customers that they want to be able to see who their friends are talking to, because they feel those people would have similar interests to theirs. They want to be connected to people who are like-minded," she said.
She declined to comment specifically about social networking competitors, but MySpace (which Rupert Murdoch bought for $580m) has revolutionised this market with its mass popularity. Beloved by teenagers and young adults, MySpace ranks second only to Yahoo in page views in the US, and drew almost five percent of all website visits in March, ahead even of mighty Google, which accounted for little over four percent, according to Hitwise. MySpace currently has more than 73 million registered users worldwide, and adds about 250,000 new ones every day.
MySpace's success hasn't gone unnoticed by large providers of online services such as Microsoft, AOL, Google and Yahoo. Google has an invitation-only social network called Orkut and Yahoo has a blogging service called Yahoo 360. AOL recently launched AOL Pages, a social networking service tied to its AIM instant messaging service.
Ironically, MSN Spaces may also end up competing with Wallop, a startup that is developing a social networking service with technology Microsoft spun off from its research unit. Wallop plans to launch its service this year.
MSN Spaces, launched in December 2004, has always allowed users to link to other blogs on the network. But the plan now is to make this easier to do and more attractive, by letting users add a section to their blogs where they can build a gallery of friends who also have MSN Spaces blogs.
While this functionality is now limited to a simple hyperlink, entries in this new gallery will contain much more information about the friends, even including notes and tags the user can add about them. The social networking features will also be integrated with Microsoft's instant message service.
The tests in Australia and the Netherlands have been going well and Microsoft plans to extend this functionality to users in other countries in the coming months, Muskopf said.
It makes sense for Microsoft to try to leverage the sizable MSN Spaces audience to go deeper into social networking. About 40 million people have set up MSN Spaces blogs, and the network receives about 120 million unique users per month, she said. Around six million photos are uploaded to the service each day for a total so far of about 2.5 billion.
MSN Spaces will also gain support for Microsoft's Gadgets, the lightweight applications introduced last year as a way to extend the functionality of larger desktop and web-based applications. Microsoft provides a website, www.microsoftgadgets.com, where developers can find information on how to build these mini-applications. Muskopf declined to provide details on how Gadgets will be supported within MSN Spaces.