Microsoft testing prototype of Facebook-like social network

Office Labs testing TownSquare network sought by Office, SharePoint developers

At the request of its SharePoint and Office product development teams, Microsoft's Office Labs operation has created and is testing a prototype of an internal social network that can provide employees with feeds and updates about their colleagues.

Chris Pratley, general manager of Office Labs, is slated to disclose details of the prototype - called TownSquare - Thursday at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston. He spoke to Computerworld today about the project, which was launched in January and has already been used by about 8,000 Microsoft employees.

With a layout that is strikingly similar to Facebook.com's (in which Microsoft invested US$240 million in October 2007), TownSquare is fueled by enterprise news feeds that use Web services to query SharePoint for public information, such as promotions and company anniversaries, about an employee.

TownSquare also notifies users when a document or file is modified. Users can customize their feeds and monitor who is receiving information about them.

In early January, Pratley's group told 100 Microsoft employees about the network. Since then, 8,000 employees who learned of TownSquare by word of mouth have visited the network at least once, Pratley noted. About 700 use it daily.

Some Microsoft customers, which he declined to name, are testing the TownSquare network for use in their companies.

Office Labs works as a sort of advance development team that tests technology concepts suggested by employees and, as in this case, development teams. Pratley stressed that TownSquare is not a product, but a platform to test the technology concepts. By hammering out the various likes and dislikes of its users before releasing a product, "We're trying to get version three goodness into a first release," he added.

"We have instrumentation -- so we know which things people use," Pratley noted. "We share that with the client teams we work with. They take the knowledge about usage so they don't make so many mistakes in product design."

Many third party vendors have targeted SharePoint as the core data source for information to feed their enterprise social networking and other Enterprise 2.0 applications. Several have announced upgrades to their products or new integration with SharePoint this week at the conference.

Anecdotal evidence has shown that employees like the TownSquare tool, Pratley noted. Employees especially appreciate being able to monitor the creation and editing of documents by colleagues, he added. One employee used the network to find a sponsor within Microsoft to fund her trip to the Enterprise 2.0 Conference.

"That is the kind of information that spreads through an enterprise social network," he said. "By posting it out there, the people interested can pick up on it, and other people can ignore it. It's a way to keep in touch in a social way with people you work with."

Like Facebook, TownSquare also includes a photos of users and allows them to note when they are away from their workstations, such as at a meeting or in the cafeteria for coffee.

While some employees have expressed initial surprise at all the information that Microsoft has about them in its intranet, once people see the type of information that is included in the feeds about them, "they see it's pretty safe stuff and say okay," Pratley said.

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Heather Havenstein

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