Microsoft has quietly opened up its experimental So.cl social networking service to the public – and been met with an underwhelming reaction.
The website was previously restricted to users at educational institutions in the US and is being dubbed an experiment in open search that's targeted at students – though it's a struggle to see what the average Joe would get out of using it.
Anything you search for on So.cl is viewable by other users and available to third party developers.
People can share and comment on search results, find and connect with others interested in the same subjects, compile collages of content, and hold "video parties" in which groups of people watch online videos together, with a live chat area providing the social aspect.
Soc.l integrates with Facebook – users can sign in using their Facebook accounts – as well as Microsoft's own Windows Live system.
"It may become a useful tool for students, with its focus on aggregating topical content. But So.cl won't get any traction outside the education sector."
Microsoft says So.cl isn't meant to replace existing full-featured search and social networking tools.
"It is an experimental research project using a minimal set of features which help combine search with the social network for the purpose of learning ... We hope to encourage students to reimagine how our everyday communication and learning tools can be improved, by researching, learning and sharing in their everyday lives.”
Ovum principal analyst Eden Zoller said Microsoft was being sensible in positioning So.cl as an experiment – the opposite from Google's approach, "which entered social networking all guns blazing" only to achieve "modest success".
"Microsoft So.cl is not a fully-fledged social network and it is far too early to even suggest it could be a rival to Google+ or Facebook, and the chances are it never will be. The fact that So.cl is targeted at students echoes Facebook’s beginnings and has made many assume it is a Facebook clone," he said.
“So.cl is powered by Bing and is about social search and sharing, with little value add beyond this and nowhere near the kind of features offered by Facebook or Google+. If So.cl gains significant traction, which we think unlikely, then Microsoft might well ramp up the service with additional features, particularly mobile where Microsoft can tap into the Windows Phone platform.
"But for now So.cl will most likely remain an experiment at heart, which is no bad thing and Microsoft will still walk away with valuable insights and experience that can help improve its overall search capabilities."
If you do want to try it out for yourself, you'll be added to a waiting list and be sent an email invite.
Wired's Alexaandra Chang has given the site a whirl and found it cluttered and confusing.
Its all-or-nothing privacy settings are an issue, she says, and its users aren't currently living up to the site's ideals when it comes to curating relevant information.