In Facebook Experiment, Microsoft Works to Deliver Shared Documents and Connect with Consumers Online
Quick, what’s the world’s most popular photo-sharing application? It’s not Photobucket or Flickr or Picasa. It’s Facebook, where users share billions of new photos every month.
“The Facebook Photos application may or may not be the best, but it is the most popular, by an absurd factor,” notes Pat Kinsel. “More photos are uploaded to Facebook every month than have been uploaded to Flickr since the beginning.”
Kinsel works for Microsoft, which happens to make the world’s most popular document authoring programs, including Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. Specifically, he’s a product manager at Microsoft FUSE Labs, which, as my colleague Greg reported when the group was formed last fall, is charged with applying social computing concepts to Microsoft business and entertainment products. So it was a natural question when Kinsel and others at FUSE Labs (the acronym stands for Future Social Experience) decided to ask earlier this year what it might look like if sharing documents on Facebook became as prevalent as sharing photos. The result was something called Docs.com.
“We want to understand what it is that makes Facebook Photos so popular, and whether we, in the lab, can make documents equally easy to share and collaborate on. That’s the key, driving question,” says Kinsel.
Docs.com is, in a nutshell, a version of Microsoft’s Office Web Apps for Facebook users. Built by a small FUSE Labs team in Redmond, WA, and Cambridge, MA, in just under four months, it’s an unusual and significant effort for Microsoft. For one thing, it’s a unique marriage of software from both companies: when users log into Docs.com, they’re using Palo Alto, CA-based Facebook’s authentication system. When they create, edit, and save documents, they’re using authoring and cloud storage software created by Microsoft’s Office Web Apps and Windows Azure teams. And when they share their documents with other Facebook users, they’re tapping into Facebook’s Open Graph application programming interface. It’s perhaps the first time Microsoft has integrated one of its products so thoroughly into another company’s Web infrastructure.
For another, Docs.com represents a dramatic foray into consumer-level social sharing at a company that has previously restricted most of its social computing features to its business software, such as Office 2010 and its SharePoint server for collaborative Web publishing. Given that it was built quickly—”we are trying to work at Web speed,” Kinsel says—and that it exploits existing features of Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing infrastructure, Docs.com could come to be seen as a pathbreaking experiment for the company, one that influences Microsoft’s product strategies in other markets.
Even more broadly, a close relationship with Facebook (in which the software giant owns a 1.6 percent stake) could be Microsoft’s ticket to connecting with more consumers online. To prop up cash cows like Office and compete with all the other Web companies muscling in on its productivity-apps territory—from Google on the big end to San Francisco startup Crocodoc on the other—the company needs a way to capture a Facebook-sized chunk of the Internet crowd. And working with Facebook on shared documents could lead to collaborations in other areas like social search, gaming, and communication.
Of course, those are mighty big hopes to pin on one experimental product from a single Microsoft lab. But already, the Docs.com application on Facebook has nearly 100,000 monthly active users, including the federal government, which used it to post a timeline for the Obama Administration’s response to the DeepWater Horizon oil spill. FUSE Labs removed a … Next Page »