Microsoft’s Vine to Reach Out in Emergencies

Microsoft has begun a limited private beta test of an emergencysocial networking service that provides subscribers with aTwitter-like messaging system to track family, friends or specialgroups.

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

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

While the initial use for Vine is to enable people to stay in contactduring 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 likelandline phones and mobile devices. Microsoft dubbedVine a “societal networking tool.”

What It Does

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

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

The network could potentially provide a regional emergency alertsystem. Microsoft plans to aggregate news reports from 20,000 localmedia 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 designatedgroups. For instance, a map of the targeted region can display little location pinsrepresenting network members.

How It Works

Users sign into the service through the dashboard pop-up on their computerdesktop. 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 systemgenerates important alerts related to the designated region as a bluepop-up on the dashboard.

Vine currently has four basic message templates. Each template targetsa type of message delivery. For instance, messages can notifydesignated recipients that the sender is safe or that the sender willbe out of town.

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

Early Limitations

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

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

Microsoft will make Vine available to a limited beta audience thisspring. To participate in the beta, potential testers must contact Microsoft and request aninvitation.

Full Purpose Unclear

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

Microsoft is taking a wait-and-see approach to Vine’s potential, said Savage. Thecompany 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 aproject sponsored by Google. The nonprofit Google.org is a founding donor toInnovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disaster (InSTEDD).This project involves SMS alerts and tracking via the Google Earthmapping application.

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

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