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Microsoft's Vine to Reach Out in Emergencies

By Jack M. Germain
Apr 29, 2009 11:59 AM PT

Microsoft has begun a limited private beta test of an emergency social networking service that provides subscribers with a Twitter-like messaging system to track family, friends or special groups.

Microsoft's Vine to Reach Out in Emergencies

Microsoft Vine is a downloadable application that collects news reports related to a specific area when disasters strike -- hurricanes, earthquakes pandemics, etc. It lets members of a registered group keep in touch with each other through text messages and emails.

Microsoft debuted Vine in its own back yard in Seattle to some 10,000 area residents in the first round of testing. The company plans additional tests in undisclosed locations in the Midwest and on an isolated island community. No detailed beta schedule or planned live launch dates have been made available.

While the initial use for Vine is to enable people to stay in contact during an emergency, other social networking applications may be possible. Vine can connect to social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as to devices like landline phones and mobile devices. Microsoft dubbed Vine a "societal networking tool."

What It Does

The application installs a desktop widget, or dashboard, that displays news reports, maps, public safety reports and emergency alerts on a map. Users configure the software for a specific area.

The Vine network allows users to send out Twitter-style alerts. They can also send more detailed reports and keep track of their Vine contacts.

The network could potentially provide a regional emergency alert system. Microsoft plans to aggregate news reports from 20,000 local media sources together with public safety information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Vine can also help users track members of their designated groups. For instance, a map of the targeted region can display little location pins representing network members.

How It Works

Users sign into the service through the dashboard pop-up on their computer desktop. Log-in requires a Windows Live ID.

Users can designate the information they want to send and to whom they want it sent.

Users can also organize their contacts into groups. The system generates important alerts related to the designated region as a blue pop-up on the dashboard.

Vine currently has four basic message templates. Each template targets a type of message delivery. For instance, messages can notify designated recipients that the sender is safe or that the sender will be out of town.

Vine users can also send schedules, trade news reports or other detailed information. Another feature lets users issue direct text messages or emails from the dashboard.

Early Limitations

So far, Microsoft Vine runs only on Windows XP with SP2 or Windows Vista 32- and 64-bit editions. The network is only available in the U.S.

However, users can expect Vine to expand to include other devices and platforms over time, including any computer or browser, according to Microsoft. That expansion could include voice and landline telephones and specialized devices such as TTY/special needs devices, satellite phones and Onstar, according to Tammy Savage, Microsoft Vine general manager.

Microsoft will make Vine available to a limited beta audience this spring. To participate in the beta, potential testers must contact Microsoft and request an invitation.

Full Purpose Unclear

Microsoft is guarding much of its plans for Vine beyond the limited initial round of beta testing. Even a planned release for Vine 1.0 is not settled. The company is not talking about any plans to grow Vine with more social networking features that could compete with existing networks.

Microsoft is taking a wait-and-see approach to Vine's potential, said Savage. The company will learn and make updates to Vine based on usage data, customer feedback and Microsoft's own insights.

Revenue Review?

Though Vine's beta test has raised questions about potential revenue streams, Microsoft declined to comment on any pricing strategy.

Microsoft could also be testing the waters for a service to beat out a project sponsored by Google. The nonprofit is a founding donor to Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disaster (InSTEDD). This project involves SMS alerts and tracking via the Google Earth mapping application.

Another possibility is using Vine as a cash cow through paid ads, perhaps funding an advertising outlet through a deal similar to one Microsoft recently announced with Facebook. Under that arrangement, Microsoft is investing $240 million to be an exclusive banner ad provider on the popular social network.

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What best describes your attitude toward social networks and politics?
The value of engaging in serious political discourse outweighs the negatives.
Most of the political conversations seem overheated and ignorant.
Social networks provide a lot of very good political information from reliable sources.
Almost every political post I see is skewed or totally fake.
Political interactions on social networks simply mirror those in the real world.
Social networks remove inhibitions, bringing out the worst in people and politics.