Fuse Labs' Montage blends search with blogging

The latest Web gadget to come from Microsoft's Fuse Labs group is something called Montage that blurs the lines of content creation and consumption.

Josh Lowensohn
Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
4 min read
Montage logo

Is there a happy medium between a Tweet and something like a full-blown blog post? Microsoft seems to think so and is working on a new experimental publishing system called Montage that lets you throw together a page of content--be it yours, or collected from the Web in just a few minutes.

Actually, less than a few minutes is the aim of the game for Montage, which pulls together news headlines, photos, and Tweets based on Bing searches. These items can then be placed on a page that stays static or changes based on the searches and feeds it's pulling from.

Montage is the latest creation to come out of FUSE Labs, a skunkworks project group within Microsoft, formed a little more than a year ago by the now departed Ray Ozzie to build social computing projects. Microsoft is taking the wraps off Montage tomorrow morning as part of the annual Web 2.0 Summit series in San Francisco.

Montage began its life as a tool for building applications on touch-screen devices before morphing into a content management system of sorts. Editors at MSN.com had wanted a way to program in trending news items to their front door in fewer steps than their existing publishing tool allowed, so the answer was a search box, plugged directly into Microsoft's Bing. It was designed to pull up photos and news headlines and feed them into a grid that could be placed on the site's front door. As far as that translating to a consumer product, it ends up as more of an experiment to see if people will latch onto something that blurs the lines between consumption and creation.

According to Fuse Labs user experience director Matthew MacLaurin, who CNET spoke with earlier today, the original premise of what Montage would end up being was not a replacement for traditional publishing systems. Instead, it's a play at offering users a speedier way to create, share, and discover new content from both traditional and social news sources. "We're not trying to be Pagemaker, or anything like that," MacLaurin joked.

An example of a particularly fleshed out Montage that more closely resembles a Web page. Click to enlarge.
An example of a particularly fleshed out Montage that more closely resembles a Web page. Click to enlarge. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

To help better figure out where the product could end up, Microsoft has been testing Montage internally for the past few months, trying to figure out what normal people (read: non-reporters) will do with it. The results have been all over the map. Some have used it to make simple photo slideshows, while others have put together pages of content that more closely resemble traditional Web sites.

So what does Microsoft think most users will do with it? "What we've decided is to basically take it public as a curatorial tool that anyone can use to create these sort of new assemblages based on dynamic streaming social media," MacLaurin said. "In a certain sense, there's a long legacy of drag and drop page builders and stuff like that, and the difference here is that it's driven entirely by search and it's entirely dynamic," he said.

Of course, pages need not be dynamic. Users can, for instance, lock down a Montage in time by pinning news stories, photos, videos, and more to a page. Or they can just leave each segment of a Montage set to search on Bing, Twitter, or an RSS feed, putting whatever new content shows up at the top. Though as far as that being useful on something like a Web site, the product is not quite there.

"We are going to let you eventually embed montages in a Web page, and of course you can just iframe them now if you want to. We want to make that even easier, we want to support that," MacLaurin said. "There's also this reverse embedding, where you can embed your existing blog into a topic page that then gets surfaced in the Montage gallery."

Montage's gallery of user submissions.
Montage's gallery of user submissions. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

That gallery (pictured above) is a listing of user-created montages that already does things like highlight the newest creations and the people who made them. This can also be browsed by the tags users assign to their Montages. MacLaurin said the goal of the gallery is to eventually include some more social hooks like a face-off for two similar Montages, as well as user achievements for both users and their creations, doled out for unique, or otherwise popular content.

MacLaurin says there's still much more work to be done on the tool, particularly in the kinds of things you can do with it. "This is an area we're going to be doubling down on, is getting a lot more cool widgets in here," he said. The product could also morph into something aimed at professional news outlets to provide things like analytics on how users are viewing and interacting with content, as well as a way to actually submit media content through the tool, as MSN's internal version allows. In the meantime, the company will be letting in groups of users in waves, before fully opening it up by the end of the year.