Microsoft already owns a minority stake in Facebook. That's paid some dividends for Redmond, mostly in the form of new social-networking features for Bing and a new channel for its recently acquired Skype.
But investment in Facebook aside, will Microsoft consider building a social network of its very own?
That was an idea floating around the blogosphere over the weekend, after Microsoft posted what looked like a social-networking project-code-named "Tulalip"-onto the Web URL socl.com. "With Tulalip you can find what you need and Share what you know easier than ever," read the page's opening text, above a series of what looked like user-profile photos.
Microsoft promptly yanked the page, replacing it with a note suggesting the whole thing was an accident: "Socl.com is an internal design project from a team in Microsoft Research which was mistakenly published to the Web ... We didn't mean to, honest."
Microsoft has some good reasons to explore social networking as a new project avenue. For starters, its archrival Google recently launched Google+, a social network meant to out-Facebook Facebook. Microsoft battles Google in a number of areas, particularly online search and mobile operating systems. It seems inevitable that, if Google were to move into the social networking realm, Microsoft would consider methods for blunting its competitor's ambitions.
For the moment, it seems the best way for Microsoft to achieve that aim is to leverage its existing relationship with Facebook-a relationship that's certainly deepened in recent weeks and months, with the aforementioned Bing features and Skype integration. When users query Bing for specific people, for example, the search engine can offer Facebook information on the results page. If they're traveling to a new city, such as Paris, Bing will tell them which Facebook friends live there. This "infusing the emotional" into queries, as Bing Director Stefan Weitz once told eWEEK, is Microsoft's strategy for differentiating its search engine from Google.
However, Microsoft's minority stake also means precious little control over Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg if he ever decides the relationship with Redmond has gone a little stale.
In light of that, it seems inevitable that a company as large and ostensibly forward-thinking as Microsoft would consider how to best establish a branded social-networking presence beholden to nobody. Nonetheless, Microsoft still needs to tread carefully-Google+ is apparently enjoying an early-adopter surge, and Facebook remains the dominant force in social networking. Hence, this weird accident (or "accident") with Tulalip-it's not outside the realm of possibility that Microsoft would do something like this, solely to gauge the inevitable reaction.