So.cl's approach 'cautious', to face hurdles in market

update Microsoft's effort not to position So.cl as social network and competitor of social media giants "smart", but will still face challenges in surviving as social platform, market observers note.

update The launch of Microsoft's experimental research project So.cl had been prudent in its positioning, and analysts note that gaining foothold in social media market will not be easy due to strong competition and user unwillingness to join another social network.

Redmond on Tuesday, launched so.cl, which would focus on exploring the possibilities of social search for the purpose of learning. Last year, it had revealed plans to launch a "social search" project. According to the site, it "combines social networking and search to help people find and share Web pages", similar to the way students do when they work together.

"So.cl is not meant to replace existing full-featured search and social networking tools," a Microsoft spokesperson, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail. "It is an experimental research project using a minimal set of features which helps combine search with the social network for the purpose of learning."

The fact that So.cl is targeted at students echoes Facebook's beginnings and has made many assume it as "a Facebook clone", Eden Zoller, Ovum's Telecoms Consumer Practice noted in a statement. However, Microsoft is being very "careful" by not positioning themselves as a competitor, but as a complement, of other social networks such as Facebook and Google+, Zoller added in a phone interview, adding that if So.cl gains traction, which is unlikely, Microsoft may ramp up the service with additional features.

That said, so.cl does have some characteristics of a social network, with an emphasis on video-sharing and social search, resembling Google+, she noted. It however lacks the feature-rich social offerings of Facebook such as on-site apps and games, Zoller added.

This approach is the opposite of Google's, which first launched Google+ with a full-on service meant to compete with Facebook, she pointed out. Redmond's "cautious launch" is "smart" because they are treading more carefully, "giving itself get out claws", she said.

Regardless of whether the "experimental research project" eventually becomes social or remains an experiment, it will benefit Microsoft, Zoller noted. Microsoft will gain some insights and experience that can help improve its overall search capabilities and offerings, she explained.

"It will not be easy for Microsoft because they are behind the times in terms of major innovation in social media yet again."
-- Phil Hassey,
owner, CapioIT

Entrance to social network market difficult
However, the social network market is a "difficult one" for Microsoft to penetrate, if so.cl does gain traction and eventually become known as a social network, Zoller warned.

She cited that when Google launched Google+, it seemed to build up its user base quickly, but right now, it is "not making the headlines". Facebook, on the other hand, dominates the social media market but still has to "fight hard" to continue engaging users and keeping its user base, she added.

Phil Hassey, owner of CapioIT, also agreed that it was difficult to "really cut through" in the social media market, especially with Microsoft's late entrance. He compared that with Google's social network, which struggled to have a real compelling reason to get users to adopt.

"It will not be easy for Microsoft because they are behind the times in terms of major innovation in social media yet again," he said.

Students who ZDNet Asia spoke to, however, still viewed Microsoft as a social network and were hesitant about joining another social network.

Lim Kian Hean, a student remarked that he was already on too many social networks such as Path, Google+ or Facebook so it was unlikely that he will sign up for so.cl.

Another student, Randy Chia, also said that he would not sign up because it was not offering something "compelling" that other social networks did not offer. "Unless a large number of my friends are on it, I don't think I will be interested," he said.

Focus on privacy, mobile
What Microsoft should do is to focus on the security and confidence in how user information is treated, Hassey noted, adding that this is an area where Facebook and Google have faced "numerous" issues with.

If Microsoft can come up with a way of managing data to allay privacy fears, it may gain a competitive advantage but otherwise, it will most likely only be as successful at Google+, Hassey noted.

Another area Microsoft could push into would be on mobile features, Zoller added. She explained that in the age of mobile devices, people like interacting on social networks through their device, and even though Facebook has a strong user base, it lacked good traction in the mobile space because it did not have an operating system.

As such, Microsoft is in a good position with Windows phone and Microsoft should tap on its Window phone capabilities and the user base, she advised.

Facebook and Google could not respond to ZDNet Asia's queries by press time.

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