Microsoft has belatedly (and quietly) joined the social network revolution with the launched of So.cl, a "sharing" website designed by Microsoft Research FUSE Labs.
The company says that the site is very much an experiment, intended for students to network and share information. Microsoft had inadvertently revealed that it was working on the initiative when it was accidentally published to the web in 2011.
The heart of the site is a "social search" feature called Tulalip, although it relies heavily on tagging to enable people to find the content they are seeking, and uses Bing for search data via the public API.
"We expect students to continue using products such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other existing social networks, as well as Bing, Google and other search tools. We hope to encourage students to re-imagine how our everyday communication and learning tools can be improved, by researching, learning and sharing in their everyday lives," states Microsoft in an FAQ on the So.cl page.
However, to use the service, users have to sign-in using either Microsoft Live or Facebook IDs and, if users login using Facebook, So.cl will access Facebook profile information, including names, Facebook ID, emails, profile pictures and Facebook friends.
Microsoft may also aggregate information about individuals gleaned from its estate of websites, as well as supplementing this with information obtained from other companies.
"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," said Eden Zoller, principal analyst at Ovum.
Zoller said that it is intended to be a layer on top of existing social networks, rather than a rival to them, but suggested that its impact would be minimal.
He added: "If So.cl gains significant traction, which we think unlikely, then Microsoft might well ramp up the service with additional features – particularly mobile, where Microsoft can tap into the Windows Phone platform.
"But for now, So.cl will most likely remain an experiment at heart, which is no bad thing and Microsoft will still walk away with valuable insights and experience that can help improve its overall search capabilities, which is its major priority."