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Microsoft, Google eye Twitter-like services for work

After testing microblogging services within their own walls, the two giants see broader opportunities in giving companies their own internal Twitters.

While Twitter seems to have the market sewn up when it comes to the public sharing of snippets of information, the competition is heating up for offering similar services inside a corporation.

Microsoft, for example, is testing OfficeTalk, a microblogging service that's a sort of Twitter for businesses, while Google has been using an inside-the-company version of its Google Buzz feature to allow co-workers to share information with one another.

"We've had it internally for Googlers for a really long time," Google's Brett Slatkin said last week at Microsoft's Mix10 event in Las Vegas. "Being able to have broadcast as a medium inside your organization is awesome."

Slatkin said tools like Google's Internal Buzz help break down bureaucracy and get attention for things that might otherwise get lost in the shuffle. Slatkin said Google plans to allow businesses using Google Apps to also host their own versions of Buzz, though he didn't offer a time frame.

Microsoft's OfficeTalk started last year as a side project for a couple workers on the Office Labs team, evolving fairly rapidly into a tool used by thousands of workers within the company. Redmond broke its silence on OfficeTalk a week ago, mentioning it in a blog posting and noting that it was expanding its testing outside Microsoft.

Of course, as near as anyone can tell, Twitter is also hoping to be Twitter for businesses. And, for those who want something that runs on their own servers, there's already Yammer, which has been around since 2008.

The challenge, says Office Labs general manager Chris Pratley, isn't building a microblogging service. The features there are pretty basic and straightforward. The real issue, he said, is figuring out the ingredients necessary to make it a service people want to use.

"There's this feeling among the technorati (that) everyone will use it," Pratley said in a telephone interview on Monday. "What we we're seeing is that you can make these things, but it's not automatic that people want to microblog in their organizations."

Creating a service people want to use at work starts with having the features that make the service convenient to use, but extends to other factors that include where the content is shown and who else is using it.

While Twitter serves as a chance for people to catch up on celebrities and even become famous in their own right, enterprise services are more likely to catch on by serving a clear communications purpose, such as keeping up with distant co-workers or providing feedback at a particular event.

And it's not easy to say that something that makes a service popular at one company will work at another. Pratley said he is keenly aware that Microsoft, with it's e-mail-centric, engineer-laden culture, isn't like other companies.

"We're incrementally more introverted than the average person," Pratley said. "We're both willing to try new things and we're shy."

Part of the goal in expanding OfficeTalk to a handful of other businesses is to see how those ingredients vary from company to company. For now, Microsoft is keeping OfficeTalk as a labs project, though it could certainly one day find its way into server products like SharePoint or Exchange or desktop software such as Outlook or Communicator.

One of the key ingredients required for business microblogging to take off seems to be having a distribution mechanism beyond just a worker's PC.

Facebook's Ari Steinberg, who was also part of the panel discussion at Mix, said his company has a screen in its cafeteria that broadcasts a cycling stream of internal status updates.

"It's a really simple app, but it's actually, like, really cool, because you see random co-workers who you don't normally interact with," Steinberg said. "Sometimes it's useless but occasionally its really interesting and you're just waiting for your food anyway."

Pratley said Microsoft has a similar Cafe TV system and has also used OfficeTalk at high-profile events like the Microsoft company meeting and at an all-hands meeting for Stephen Elop's Microsoft business division.

Interestingly enough, Twitter itself doesn't have a separate corporate system, although it does use a lot of private accounts to share information, according to the company's Ryan Sarver, who was on the panel at Mix.

Lili Cheng, a social-networking expert who heads Microsoft's Fuse Labs, said the internal microblogging apps provide a useful means of informal communication.

"I think it's good to give people an outlet," she said.

Such systems allow workers to reach co-workers broadly at their company without spamming them.

"If you have an issue in your company, what are you going to do, e-mail everybody in your company?" Cheng said. "I think with these tools you are posting. If people are interested, they are checking it just keeps communication flowing a lot better."

Facebook's Steinberg said there is probably more that all the big Web companies could do on the business side. "I think there are ways we could make our products work better for people who want to use it at work."