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Microsoft Outlook Adds Social Networking: Nice Idea, Bad Execution

First Yahoo (YHOO) decided to integrate social media into its email service. Then Google (GOOG) decided to try it, with a quickly negative reaction over privacy issues. Now Microsoft continues its efforts to integrate social networking into Outlook. I looked, albeit with some serious doubts. But the fit between how the program handles social networking, contact management, and email is intriguing. Too bad the execution is so flimsy.

As I mentioned yesterday, Microsoft has taken a stronger move toward user-centric product design, with some impressive results. And yet still the company labors under a dysfunctional culture of loyalty, chaining itself to outmoded strategy, executives running divisions for their own interest in corporate power, and its need to keep cash cows productive.

Outlook is a key part of the Office productivity suite, and Microsoft wants to keep it relevant. Hence the attempt, first made public last November, to add social networking through the Social Connector product. Although it does share one weakness of both the Yahoo and Google attempts -- the inability to post to social networks -- the way it uses information is far more interesting. In fact, social networking seems like a news-targeted excuse for releasing a powerful capability for Outlook: the ability to instantly associate all the communications from a given person or entity. For example, click on an email and a new pane that you can easily open or close shows emails, meetings, social network status updates, and file attachments the person sent you. Or click on your contact and all the communications appear at the bottom.

It's actually a shame that Microsoft positioned this as a "social networking" addition for two reasons. One is that the term makes it seem as though Microsoft is just pulling out material from contacts in social networks, like Yahoo and Google -- and that's a shame. Not only does it limit potential perception of the product, but also it underscores a bigger problem: Microsoft offers hardly anything by way of real social networking. There is a plug-in that LinkedIn offers, but that's it for now. Nothing from Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, or any other source. Although I'll grant that Office focuses heavily on business users, to have only LinkedIn available at first is absurd.

Other aspects of the execution were equally bad. ZDNet writer Sam Diaz, an avowed Mac guy, tried it, and found himself locked out of Outlook. He admits not paying sufficient attention to the installation instructions to realize that it was a 32-bit application and that he had a 64-bit version of Outlook. But, but come on, are you saying that Microsoft is incapable of detecting the difference between 32- and 64-bit systems and stopping the installation, if there's a mismatch?

I got past the installation point to find, lo and behold, that when asked to pick a social network, there was none listed. I literally had to go to LinkedIn and separately install some software. Why not have it optionally listed and then automatically do the installation? There didn't seem to be any tutorial on how to use it. (What? The news feed folder is where social network status messages reside? I guess -- or, rather, I had to guess.)

Microsoft left too many questions unanswered and, as it has done too often, paid no attention to the customer experience. As a result, I won't be surprised if many current Office customers don't even bother to try the new capability, let alone adopt it for regular use.

Image from Microsoft.

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