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Microsoft Vine could save your hide

Location-based notification service, a piece of the company's Public Safety Initiative, is designed to help users notify the people they need to reach in emergencies. Does it answer the call?

Microsoft Vine looks like an odd social experiment. It's designed to help users send notifications to the people they need to reach in emergencies. I tried the product and found it very un-Microsoft-like. It's useless as a single-user app, and it's also oddly specific in its functionality. From Microsoft, I expect broad platforms and wide-open productivity tools. Vine is neither.

Or is it? I took my questions to Microsoft, and was routed to a person whose title made it clear that there's more going on with Vine than the product initially reveals. I ended up talking with Tammy Savage, general manager of the Microsoft Public Safety Initiative.

Tammy Savage, general manager of the Microsoft Public Safety Initiative. Microsoft

At its core, Vine is based on a new Microsoft platform for routing communications between different systems. The platform is built to know the various ways there are to reach anyone using it, and it tries multiple methods until it gets its message through.

For example, some emergency messages might go to users' e-mail accounts or be sent as text messages. Some may go to regular telephones, and will get converted from text to speech if necessary. If one communication method goes down (if calls can't go through after a big disaster, for instance) the platform routes messages over another until they reach enough people to satisfy the requirements of the message.

Rules dictate to whom a message goes. An emergency message to check on a child when a parent is unable to after an earthquake, for example, might only require one person who gets the message to reply to it in the affirmative to satisfy the rule. A note about a kids' soccer game being canceled due to a muddy field would keep bouncing through the system until all the parents got it.

To keep the product in front of users, so they don't forget about when they need it, Vine also lets you track local news, and it can be used it to "check in" when you're traveling, even if you're not in the middle of an emergency. (See Meet Vine for more.)

Vine reaches deep

Vine lets you send ordinary updates as well as emergency alerts. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The current private beta version requires that all users download an app, which is a pretty serious limitation for a product that's supposed to reach emergency contacts, some of whom might not be Vine users. Savage said there won't be a download requirement when the product hits Version 1.

However, the app itself could have an important purpose. It might become a node in a mesh network enabling messages to hop between users' computers as the platform tries to deliver emergency notifications. That's an ambitious goal, but it's something an operating system vendor could potentially do. (On September 14, 2001, writing for Red Herring, I proposed a peer-to-peer emergency communications network that could be used when Web news sites were overloaded, as they were on September 11.)

"Our intent," Savage says, "is to create something that will hold up in an emergency, but getting to that point is a process, and a long-term play." Microsoft is a good place to build this, she says: "You can't design a system that survives in a long-term scenario with a small investment."

So the Vine app, as it is today, is the tip of the iceberg. "We consider ourselves an integration layer," Savage says. Vine will be a "service of services," a switchboard to intelligently connect communication systems to each other, to connect people when it's critical to do so. It'll connect e-mail, IM, Twitter, SMS, landline phones, cars using OnStar, satellite phones, you name it.

Off balance

Savage also says Vine is built on a new model of understanding emergency communications. As she says, "The old model is, you sound an alarm to get people off balance. Then you provide them with a path to get on balance. This top-down model works well when the threat is understood, the authority is trusted, and peoples' behavior is visceral."

But today that's not the case. Emergencies take new forms, people often don't trust authority, and there's so much communication noise that it's hard for an authoritarian message to break through. Savage says the way people react to emergency alerts when the reaction isn't visceral is to see what people around them are doing.

Her example: You're in a hotel and the fire alarm goes off. What do you do? Most people poke their head out of their door. If other people are running for the exits, they will too. But if nobody's reacting, or people are just slowly ambling out, they'll imitate that behavior. Vine, Savage says, "will give people the proverbial door that can be opened to look around. We're building infrastructure that can be bottom-up and sideways, so messages get through, so we can create nonlinear information sharing in a time of crisis."

I suggested to Savage that Twitter is becoming this non-linear emergency communication channel. She agreed in principle, but said, "We want to include it. But we need more advanced capabilities. We want to know what's circular reporting and what's original."

Ultimately, this is a business for Microsoft, not just a public service. There are budgets for emergency response programs at all levels of government and in many businesses. Savage says Microsoft's first business effort with Vine is "bottoms-up" --local churches, schools, police stations. "Because those are the entities that citizens really trust." She says it's harder to build the business this way (although have you tried getting federal grant dollars?) but she thinks the technology will be more useful than if it's implemented top-down. "Grassroots is where this has to happen," says the Microsoft chief of emergency response platforms.