Technology

BusinessWeek


Believe it or not, Microsoft just became a bit more, well, cool. The software giant has just entered the booming online video arena with Soapbox, a service that lets users view, search, and share videos. It's Microsoft's answer to already successful sites like YouTube and Guba, and, in my view, it stands up well.

Soapbox is currently in a test phase and accessible by invitation only. The limited audience has left content largely up to Microsoft (MSFT) employees and company-approved testers. So it lacks the scores of home videos and clips of funny college antics that dominate rival video sites. The Microsoft-heavy user base would also explain the myriad clips that spoof Apple (AAPL) commercials and bash—sometimes literally—Apple products. I'm not sure how to explain the clips featuring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer running around like a crazy person.

Thankfully, Microsoft plans to supplement content with licensed material from MSN partners. But it is also confident that better user-generated content will come once it releases its platform to the public. Initially, I was skeptical of this strategy. After all, there are so many established user-generated video sites on the Internet already. Why go to MSN when you can hang out on YouTube, or Yahoo! (YHOO), or Time Warner (TWX) AOL's uncut video?

WANNABE NO MORE. There are several reasons, it turns out. Soapbox is more than a Microsoft copy of rival sites. Sure, it has all the features that have become standard on top video-sharing sites, such as the ability to rate and bookmark videos as favorites. It includes fast downloads and uploads. But it also offers some unique capabilities that make it easier to share videos and find and search for clips. For instance, by just copying easy-to-find text beneath every clip, I can easily embed a video on my own blog or e-mail it to friends. Other sites have this capability but you have to go through a link or two before you get the code.

In addition, Microsoft takes its sharing capabilities a step further than most by making it painless to send an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed. With a few mouse clicks, I can have a player on my own Web site automatically updated with a category of Soapbox videos—such as most watched—without logging back on to Soapbox. "We want people to get a taste of the Soapbox experience wherever they are," explains Rob Bennett, Microsoft's general manager of MSN Entertainment & Video Services. "Then we want to find a way to drive people back."

What kept me coming back was the ability to customize my own page. After receiving a log-on, users get their own completely customizable homepage to store favorite videos, upload and hold their own clips, and track comments. On my favorites I have Dave Chappelle's very funny Mac spoof and a clip of Steve Ballmer doing his best impression of a love-struck Tom Cruise.

LOVE THAT SCREEN. On the search side, Microsoft has a feature that lets users add their own tags to videos. Assuming users don't apply misleading descriptions of the video, the additional tags make it easier to find content. The ubiquitous and oft-copied "Numa Numa Kid" video, for example, could be tagged by users as "the original" and "the one and only" to help others find it.

Another cool feature is the screen. It's somewhat larger than the screens on YouTube and the picture quality is better. On Soapbox, commercials look like television commercials, and not digital copies of commercials. The screen also can expand to the size of the monitor without significantly losing quality.

Microsoft wants to keep users on the site, so it has engineered the screen to keep running and playing videos regardless of whatever else users are clicking on, on the site. I could search for other videos, maintain my favorites list, and play around with my profile—all while watching video-game characters sing along to a musical score.

Microsoft will need all these capabilities and lots of content if it hopes to keep its MSN audience from going to YouTube, AOL, or, gasp, Google (GOOG) for video. It will also need to be careful about how it incorporates advertising into the site, which will definitely happen, though perhaps not while the site is still in testing. Still, the suite of capabilities should go a long way to attracting an audience, particularly one that wants to make its blogs a bit more cool.


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