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Microsoft wants to know who your friends are

The company's research unit looks to help computer users manage the thousands of e-mails and other electronic communiques they get each day. An automatically updated "inner circle" is one approach.

Thanks to e-mail, we all have thousands of "contacts," but in some ways, this newfound popularity makes it harder to keep up with our true friends.

That's one of several problems Microsoft's research arm is trying to address as part of a push into "social computing." Communicating with others is one of the key reasons people use computers, but researchers worry that the methods we use for handling those interactions have become a little too impersonal.

"Contacts don't match the way people think," said Lili Cheng, group manager of the social-computing group within Microsoft Research. A better model is the handwritten list of phone numbers many people keep next to their computer. That, Cheng said, "better represents the people that you'd want to talk to."

To try to translate that idea into digital terms, Cheng and her team have come up with a concept called Inner Circle, which automatically maintains and updates a list of about 20 people with whom one is e-mailing and instant messaging the most.

The project is one of several efforts Cheng's team showed off this week at Microsoft's TechFest. The two-day event brings thousands of company employees to the giant's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to hear presentations from workers in Microsoft Research's five labs, based in Cambridge, Mass., the Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Redmond and Beijing.

Finding better ways to manage contacts is a central effort in both Microsoft's research unit and within its product teams. When Microsoft executives debuted Longhorn--the next version of Windows--they stressed the importance of managing contacts as a key benefit of the operating system's improved WinFS file system.

The company recognizes that people are a central point for organizing digital information. For example, Cheng said, we may not remember where we saved a file or when we got it, but we often remember who it was that sent it to us.

People are also key to the work done on computers. In both Longhorn and an upcoming version of Office for the Mac, Microsoft is using the idea of "projects"--or ad hoc groups of people and documents that change over time.

Although much of Cheng's team focuses on work that is three to five years away from becoming part of a product, the ideas she expresses are central to a shift in thinking that is taking place throughout the company.

While technology makes it possible for people to bridge long distances, it may also have the effect of making us distant from those closest to us. TechFest itself is a recognition of that possibility--Microsoft created the event four years ago, after realizing that most people in the company just didn't know what the researchers were up to.

Interest in the social-computing work has been high. "We're pretty much talking to every product group," Cheng said.

Microsoft has a business reason for trying to make sure that its software enhances rather than hinders persons' social lives. The failure to adequately stay on top of all e-mail from friends and co-workers eventually translates into animus toward technology, Cheng said.

"It makes me not like my computer," Cheng said. "It makes me feel I'm disorganized."

Old habits are hard to crack
Inner Circle, Cheng believes, is one answer to that. It's not really a breakthrough in computer science as much as it is an exercise in cultural anthropology. Many people have folders today for their most important contacts, but they often drag e-mails in one by one. "That's just kind of silly for a human to constantly be managing," Cheng said.

A more tech-savvy version of the handwritten list, Cheng said, would contain all the messages from each member of a person's inner circle. The list would be "zoomable"--meaning that if one really wanted a message from Bruce, but only Anne and Christopher showed up on the list, one could click between the two and get a list of all the Bs that didn't make the inner circle list.

The idea of creating folders that update automatically is not a new one. For instance, such an approach is used in the smart playlists feature in Apple's iTunes or the in-box filtering rules Outlook already has. But in those examples, users have to set the rules for how they want information. In other words, they have to know what they're looking for. With Inner Circle, Cheng said, the software automatically creates the rules based on user behavior--a far tougher feat.

The effort is similar to other work Microsoft Research is doing on how software can do a better job of using past behavior and probability to automate various tasks, such as forwarding calls.

With e-mail, Cheng said, it's not enough to just set a rule that assumes that the people you get the most e-mail from are your true friends.

"People you e-mail the most are more important than the person who sent you mail you never responded to," Cheng said. Other things to look for are whether users mention specific contacts in their Web log or how often people show up in one another's photos.

Another social-engineering effort looks at tapping the omnipresence of cell phones to enable groups, especially teens and young adults, to stay in touch. Dubbed Swarm, the effort is basically akin to a mailing list for short cell phone messages. A group of friends can subscribe to a list. When someone wants to let the group in on some info, he or she sends a text message to a number that redirects the message to the phone of everyone on the list.

One thing researchers found is that some people appreciated being part of a social group, even if they never actively sent messages.

Shelly Farnham, another researcher in Microsoft's social-computing group, said she was going to take a couple people off her Swarm list, because they rarely responded. However, the people pleaded to be put back. "They were very upset," Farnham said.

Farnham said Swarm was not just a good way for friends to meet and make plans; it also allowed more distant members of a group to keep tabs on what the more active folks were doing. "They like to know where their friends are," Farnham said.

CNET's Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.