Microsoft has established Outlook as one of the leading applications for reading, writing, and managing e-mail. With Outlook 2010 and Outlook Social Connectors, though, Microsoft is breaking that mold and adapting the software as a communications hub rather than an e-mail utility by incorporating social networks like LinkedIn, MySpace, and now Facebook.
The response in the media has generally revolved around the frivolous, unprofessional aspects of social networking, and how Outlook Social Connectors provide a whole new level of goofing off for users who should be engaged in productive tasks that contribute to the bottom line. There is certainly potential for that, but the users that will waste time on Outlook Social Connectors are the same ones that are already wasting time shopping Amazon and checking scores on ESPN anyway.
For the less easily distractible users, though, Outlook Social Connectors improve communications and streamline business processes to enable more efficiency and productivity. The Outlook Social Connector aggregates all e-mail, file attachments, calendar events, status updates, and other social networking posts in a single Outlook pane that lets users stay up to date on current communications, as well as providing a more efficient means of searching prior communications related to a given contact.
A post on the Microsoft Outlook 2010 blog explains "When viewing a message from someone, you see real-time updates from his or her activities on Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace, and Windows Live. You see information that your friends and co-workers have made public on those sites, as long as the email address they are using to communicate with you has been added to their account settings on the social network."
Facebook has its share of frivolous time-wasters (have you checked in on your Farmville or Mafia Wars lately?), but it has also emerged as a business and communications platform. For many, status updates have replaced blogs, and businesses of all shapes and sizes use Facebook Pages to engage with partners and customers, or promote products and services.
The Outlook Social Connector has particular value for anyone in sales and customer service. Being able to see current social network status updates provides a window into the interests and concerns of customers that can be used to establish rapport and pinpoint needs to address them more efficiently.
While the Outlook Social Connector feature was introduced as a function of Outlook 2010, Microsoft has also developed an Outlook Social Connector add-on for Outlook 2007 and Outlook 2003. The Microsoft blog post states that the Outlook Social Connector is available in a variety of languages, including "Arabic, Brazilian, Chinese (Simplified), Chinese (Traditional), Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Thai, with more languages in the upcoming months."
I do have to admit, though, that there seems to be very little business value in having an Outlook Social Connector for MySpace.