Software giant Microsoft is taking steps to make what might be the stodgiest of email and communications applications—Microsoft Outlook—into a functional piece of the connected generation’s lifestyles: The Outlook Social Connector add-on puts a new pane into Outlook’s primary reading area that can display information from a sender’s social networking activities, including status messages and contact information. Available in beta form now, Outlook Social Connector has been included in beta versions of Office 2010, but the new version can hook into Outlook 2003 and Outlook 2007 as well.
The software uses connector plug-ins to access individual social networking services. Currently, professional social networking site LinkedIn has a connector available; Microsoft says connectors for Facebook and MySpace should be available in the first half of 2010. Microsoft plans to release a connector for Windows Live, and speculation has Microsoft working on a connector for its own Xbox Live gaming service. Currently, the connectors are one-way: users can get information from social networking services, but can’t post information back to social networking services via Outlook. The Outlook Social Connector also taps into activity feeds for co-workers and colleagues using social features in Microsoft’s SharePoint 2010 server.
Outlook has traditionally been pitched as an email and communications applications for business, enterprise, and large organizations: these are also precisely the sort of IT regimes that routinely block access to services like FaceBook, MySpace, and Twitter at the workplace, viewing them as hinderances to employee productivity. It seems likely that control over the Outlook Social Connector will still be in the hands of IT departments in these situations, but Microsoft is betting that social networks are useful enough to some of its customers that direct integration will be a benefit to them. The question is, for the rest of the social networking world, is it too little, too late?