Microsoft Corp. is taking another step toward turning Outlook, its desktop e-mail program, into a hub for information from popular social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.
On Wednesday, Microsoft is releasing a "beta" test version of the Outlook Social Connector. The add-on software, which was first discussed last November, adds a new pane to the main e-mail reading screen on Outlook. When a user clicks to read an e-mail message, the new pane fills up with the sender's most recent social-networking activities. Those could include the addition of a professional contact on LinkedIn or a "what I'm doing now" status update from Facebook.
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Microsoft has a mixed record when it comes to Web trends. The company's free Hotmail and Windows Live Messenger programs are widely used, but its Windows Live blog/social network didn't pick up much steam in the face of competition from Facebook. In this case, a small startup called Xobni has already built an Outlook add-on that combines inbox search with content from Facebook, LinkedIn and others.
Microsoft's new software also treats Outlook itself as a social network. If the e-mail sender and recipient are jointly working on a document stored on a company's Sharepoint server, both will see updates if one logs on to make edits.
For now, the new software doesn't let people use Outlook to push information back up to LinkedIn, Facebook or other sites.
People using Office 2003, 2007 and beta versions of Office 2010 can download the updated Outlook Social Connector beta Wednesday. LinkedIn, which is primarily used for business networking online, is the first company to make its add-in software available. It can be downloaded from LinkedIn.com.
Microsoft said the Facebook and MySpace plug-ins will be ready for download by the time Office 2010 goes on sale in June.
Will Kennedy, a corporate vice president for the Office group, said some of Microsoft's business customers have expressed concern that employees will become less productive if they have all this extra information at their fingertips.
But Kennedy sees business-friendly uses for the Social Connector. He thinks it could speed up processes that require a string of people to sign off, because each person in that chain could see when it's time for him or her to weigh in.
"We don't want this to sort of be the next great time waster in the workplace," he said.