Microsoft Soapbox is no threat to YouTube, yet

Microsoft's YouTube competitor, Soapbox on MSN Video, is in private beta [news story]. We wheedled our way on to the invite list and gave it a spin. The beta program will expand shortly.

Soapbox is Microsoft's user-generated video site, not to be confused with the company's professional video site, MSN Video. For its part, Soapbox is a solid video sharing service, incorporating all the Web 2.0 features a modern site should have. You can tag videos and comment on them, and you can easily find videos based on tags or popularity. You can also browse the video catalog without stopping the video you're watching, which is a nice user interface development. Uploading is easy - a neat trick lets you upload videos in the background on your PC without requiring a standalone uploader application. Videos can be of any length as long as they're under 100MB. Of course Soapbox uses Windows Media Player technology to display videos in Internet Explorer. But when run on Firefox or a Mac, it uses Flash.

The soapbox page rarely scrolls, so using Soapbox feels more like using a PC application than a typical Web site. But, in the beta anyway, the browser's back button doesnýt work -- it takes you back to the last site you were on, and loses your place on the Soapbox site.

I found nothing in the Soapbox product itself to propel it past other video sharing sites. It will live or die based on its content and its community. Microsoft will have to turn people on its successful blogging network, Windows Live Spaces, into Soapbox users. That could make a difference, but the site's features won't.

In sum, Soapbox is disappointing. It's a slightly better sharing service than YouTube in some small technical ways, but it doesn't help users make money from their content like Revver does; it doesn't have granular privacy controls like Vox; it won't post directly into blogs for you like VideoEgg; and it won't show videos from other networks like Yahoo Video. Given Microsoft's position in the video sharing market (dead last), I expected a more aggressive product.

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