Will Microsoft's 'Wallop' Pack a Punch in the Enterprise?

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Microsoft Research is looking at how to leverage blogs, RSS feeds, wikis and other social-networking tools for collaborative applications.

When Microsoft showed a prototype of software code-named "Wallop" at last month's Professional Developers Conference, few attendees understood exactly what they were seeing. And the fact that Microsoft is sequestering Wallop behind a corporate firewall, allowing only a small number of researchers and their contacts to test the software, isn't helping to clarify matters.

But Microsoft social computing group researcher Lili Cheng is starting to talk publicly in general terms, at least, about the company's foray into social-networking software. And Microsoft Research (MSR) is making screen shots available, showing Wallop and some of the other MSR social-computing technologies that are feeding into it.

Check out these Wallop screen shots for a closer look-see.

"We've been really interested in blogs, wikis, authoring and syndication around RSS, and social networking software in general," Cheng tells Microsoft Watch. "We were imagining how these things could combine. And Wallop is our first experiment in this space."

The social computing group has been working on Wallop for about a year. And Microsoft sees its potential for both business and consumer customers, Cheng says. (As with all Microsoft Research projects, with Wallop, there is no definite if or when, regarding how it will show up as commercialized software.)

Wallop evolved primarily from a multi-user online community developed by Microsoft Research, called Hutch World. Named for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Hutch World was designed to connect virtually cancer patients and their caregivers.

"We found people really wanted to talk with their own friends and families, more than with other cancer patients," Cheng says. "It made us go back to the individual."

Cheng's group found that people want to share personal information, but aren't sure how best to go about it. "We asked, why do some people have thousands of people on their buddy lists or contact lists, and others have zero? Today, software isn't very smart about organizing this."

Cheng says Wallop doesn't seem to fit into any one existing software category. While part of the application is a blogging tool, it also includes other "social networking" software." It builds off of several existing Microsoft Research prototypes, including Sapphire, technology for simplifying and unifying data storage/retrieval; Stacks, technology for organizing photos; Personal Map, technology for organizing contacts; and MS Connect and Point-to-Point, which show connections between people (via Active Directory), as well as between individuals and groups.

All of these projects look at how to make use of metadata and organize information around clusters, Cheng says. "We've also been influenced by the Longhorn team's thinking around how programming databases influences end-user experiences," she says.

Wallop enables individuals grouped together into social networks to keep in contact, using blogs, e-mail, instant messaging and other forms of real-time communication. For now, MSR is focusing on e-mail and IM as the connection vehicles, but MSR wants to add RSS and wikis to the list of supported technologies, she says.

"A lot of these ideas (RSS, wikis) are more novel and intriguing," she says. "They are about aggregating sites and getting more information out. It matches the way people communicate."

Cheng says there is no limit as to the number of people who can be part of a Wallop network, but right now, Microsoft is testing it among 100 or so individuals connected with the Microsoft Research community. Cheng says Microsoft is planning on expanding the test group via a separate Wallop pilot program in another month or so.

Cheng and her team are pushing the Wallop boundaries by doing things such as adding Wallop itself to buddy lists, and/or sending photos or other information to Wallop via instant messaging so that it automatically updates members' blogs.

Interestingly, Wallop seemingly has no relationship to Microsoft's threedegrees instant-messaging application aimed at 13 to 24 year-olds.

(This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the November 6, 2003, issue of the Microsoft Watch newsletter.)


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