It’s been awhile since Microsoft introduced a game-changing social Web application, but Vine — a service that’s debuting today with a beta test in Seattle — could be a contender.
Vine is a hyperlocal, personalized message and alert system. It’s intended to be a dashboard that people can use to keep tabs of their family, friends, activities and major events in their community.
The dashboard — which appears as a widget on a PC screen — displays a map of the user’s community and the status of their contacts. It also has buttons to send alerts or reports, which can be sent and received on the PC or as text messages on a cellphone.
Vine could be used by families, schools or soccer teams to notify people of schedules and changes. Individuals could use it as a central hub to keep track of local news and data feeds and updates from services such as Facebook.
But Microsoft’s main emphasis now is providing Vine to emergency management officials, who are intrigued by a new tool that could be used to broadcast and receive information during a disaster or other major event.
“I think long-term this is probably going to be a very valuable tool to help people keep connected, not only during times of crisis but on a daily basis,” said Hillman Mitchell, the city of Tukwila’s emergency management coordinator.
Mitchell, who has reviewed the product and will participate in the public testing, said emergency management officials are already trying to glean information from services such as Twitter and Facebook, but it’s challenging because they’re basically sending limited streams of text. Vine “provides an avenue to consolidate some of that information and analyze it in a more comprehensive way.”
“The underlying technology, where it provides a more structured data form, will long-term be a very valuable asset, whether it’s generated from Microsoft or others,” he said.
Seattle is the first place Vine will be publicly available. During a testing period that begins today, people can sign up at www.vine.net to be among more than 10,000 testers the company hopes to enlist. Similar tests will begin shortly in a rural community in the Midwest and an isolated island community, the locations of which haven’t been disclosed yet.
Inspiration for Vine came from the confusion during Hurricane Katrina. Tammy Savage, a Microsoft manager who has led experimental Web efforts for the company, spent two years researching technologies for communities to communicate and prepare for emergencies. That led to a concept Microsoft calls “societal networking.”
Then she spent two more years developing the product and the business, which is an experimental venture under the guidance of Chief Research and Strategy Officer Craig Mundie. That means it’s not allied with any particular product group, giving Savage’s 25-person team leeway to easily blend technologies from across the company.
It’s a little hard to see how Vine will stand out from the multitude of networking and communication services available already, not to mention the carcasses of similar projects such as Seattle startup Trumba, an online calendar and notification service..
But Savage still sees a need and an opportunity for a comprehensive service like Vine, which is designed to become a hub or console for various services that people use.
“We don’t want to re-create things that already exist,” she said. “We’re looking for the opportunities that are particularly appropriate for Microsoft to bring its resources to bear.”
For example, the service is debuting with data feeds from more than 20,000 media sources and public safety organizations, including NOAA and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Vine could end up competing with local media outlets, which are among the primary places people go for local information during a disaster or emergency. Microsoft is offering government agencies a way to directly communicate with residents during these events, but I wonder if users will be overwhelmed by the flow of data from emergency response agencies and miss the context, analysis and filtering of media sites.
It’s unclear where Vine could end up within Microsoft when it graduates into a full blown business, but it’s mostly likely to complement Microsoft’s suite of e-government software and its Sharepoint collaboration server.
Local officials who have seen the project are enthusiastic about what they’ve seen, but they’re waiting to see how it works and whether it’s widely accepted. Another big question is the cost, especially if Microsoft charges a significant amount for every home and business in their jurisidiction that uses the system.
“They’ve been talking about a few dollars per user ID for a period of time, maybe a month or a year,” said Seattle’s chief technology officer, Bill Schrier. “That doesn’t sound like much but if you spread it out across 300,000 premises, that’s a fair chunk of change.”
Schrier, an avid user of social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook, said Vine has “really intriguing potential” for community communications and disaster preparedness. After talking to Microsoft about Vine for about five months, he’s planning to see how the service could work with Seattle’s block watch and neighborhood emergency management programs.
UPDATE: A few commenters asked about locking into a proprietary system.
I asked the public officials interviewed about this and whether it was appropriate for municipalities to use a system that requires using Microsoft’s platform and Live ID registration.
Tukwila’s Mitchell said Vine is probably part of “a new wave of technology that we’re going to see from a variety of vendors.”
Schrier said Seattle is particularly concerned about using a system that displays advertising, such as Facebook, because it could appear the city is endorsing advertisers.
Advertising is just part of the equation though. The bigger question surround propagation of Live ID registration/customer acquisition through governments.