Microsoft is transforming Outlook from an e-mail client, or messaging platform, to a social networking hub with the addition of social connectors. The integration of social networking is a huge benefit for Outlook users, and may even help drive adoption of Outlook as others look for a tool to help sift through the social network noise.
Outlook with social connectors is much closer to what many, myself included, expected Google Buzz to be. We already have enough social networks to manage. What we need is a tool to help aggregate the various messages and status updates and simplify keeping track of it all, not yet another social network to tame.
There has been a concerted effort to create such an interface on mobile devices. Motorola has MotoBlur, Palm has Synergy, and HTC has developed FriendStream. The common thread among these initiatives is the attempt to bring all of the various social networks together in one interface and make it easier for users to stay in touch.
There have been similar attempts for desktop software as well. Two that stand out are TweetDeck, and AOL's Lifestream. Tweetdeck allows you to harness Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, TwitVid, TwitGoo, MobyPicture, and MySpace, while Lifestream has similar connectivity, including Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr, YouTube, and Delicious.
While these tools help simplify social networking some by providing a single tool for managing multiple networks, it is still an additional application to install, configure, and maintain. There is also still a significant amount of noise to sift through to find relevant communications. Google and Microsoft have an opportunity to integrate social network management with the messaging platforms that users rely on every day.
Google's Buzz has some potential as a sort of crowd-sourcing collaboration tool for business customers (assuming Google resolves the various privacy concerns), but Microsoft's approach might be just what busy business professionals need to use social networking more effectively.
A given contact might be a part of multiple social networks. But, logging in to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and other social networks one by one to stay up to date with current updates and communications from that contact is cumbersome and inefficient. The multitude of social networks, combined with the sheer volume of communications on each make staying in touch daunting and threaten to render the whole concept of social networking useless from a business perspective.
Outlook with social connectors resolves most, if not all, of those issues. The People Pane at the bottom of the Outlook Reading Pane provides users with an intelligent and effective way to access all relevant information about a given contact, including e-mail, calendar events, file attachments, as well as RSS feeds and social network status updates.
You can also access the same information through Outlook contacts. The contact details for an individual include a pane at the bottom providing a single location for you to find all relevant information related to that contact.
LinkedIn is the only social connector available right now, but Facebook and MySpace are coming soon, and Microsoft has built social connectors as an open platform, providing the tools to enable developers to create social connectors for virtually any network or feed.
While many feel Microsoft is too large, and too "yesterday" to keep pace and adapt to the rapidly changing Web 2.0 world, Outlook social connectors are exactly what users -- particularly business professionals -- need to harness social networks and use them effectively.