AOL, MSFT, GOOG: What Are They Doing in the Sandbox?

Microsoft, AOL and Google are making more quiet moves in their labs that indicate an interest in the kinds of things that many Web 2.0 startups are doing. From social bookmarking to rich media RSS to clustered search, here’s a quick overview of some of the newest developments still far from market. If you are a heavy user of new web tools, try not to giggle. These could be signs of the future for mass markets and mainstream users. Or they could be a sign of companies that should just bite the bullet and buy some startups who have already built these things.


Microsoft is experimenting with an internal tagging system, a javascript bookmarklet that can only be used to save pages on Microsoft watcher Mary Jo Foley discovered the beta tool, called TagSpace, last night. She wonders why it, like the Soapbox video site, isn’t under the Live brand.

The project explanation includes some of the most awkward discussion of Web 2.0 I’ve read in awhile and a line that says Tagspace isn’t intended to replace “your favorite social bookmarking service (yet!).”

The bookmarklet doesn’t do very much at all – almost nothing yet in fact. The project explanation makes it clear that the company hopes having their pages tagged will help them better categorize the pages on their own site. They would be much better served surveying the way their pages have been tagged in other services, even Windows Live Favorites. If half the time spent on explanatory text had been spent on functionality this might be more interesting. In time it may become more so.


Steve Rubel
notes today that AOL is experimenting with a new Ajax RSS reader. He notes that it supports drag and drop feed organizing and rich media like video. The first thing I noticed is that it doesn’t allow import of OPML files. It’s very bare bones. AOL product manager Frank Gruber stopped by Rubel’s blog to point out that the reader was really just a demo of Ajax toolkit Dojo in a feed reader context. The reader is highlighted on the AOL Greenhouse page, a lab for prelaunch products.

AOL already has an online feed reader, but the basic functionality of the new reader indicates things could be stepping up a notch. What major online feed readers support rich media? Not Google Reader, not Newsgator, certainly not MyYahoo. Bloglines does. In an increasingly video driven online world, an AOL feed reader that you could view video inline would be a valuable product.


Google’s search sandbox SearchMash has begun offering suggested multi word queries expanding on some single word queries, notes the watchdog blog Google Operating System. Single word queries are ubiquitous and it’s really in everyone’s best interest to get those searches disagregated and more specific. Would users want clustered suggestions ala Probably not, but if the basic idea could be refined it could be powerful. Determining the meaning of ambiguous single word queries is a holy grail of sorts; search engineers must find that frustrating.

SearchMash is also now including Wikipedia search results in a box on its results pages. Can you imagine having Wikipedia pages highlighted in your search results on Google? They’re already towards the top of many results, but I can’t imagine this feature on SearchMash is headed for Google proper. It would be a huge assist to Wikipedia’s mainstream credibility, but would probably come at a cost to Google’s own.

All of these are just projects in the labs, of course.
Loads of projects never make it out of labs. It’s interesting though to see the big guys dipping their toes into the kinds of Web 2.0 products that so many startups have already launched. Why are they showing us these things? If it’s in response to calls for transparency, some blog posts (with comments) would help. Other departments in Microsoft in particular are quite good at that.

Perhaps it just goes to show that though the startup world isn’t the only place you can look for a peak at the future of the major players, it’s still the most dynamic source of insight into the future. Think about that the next time you ask why a startup got bought when one of the big players could have built the same functionality. Bonus cool link: check out this sliding time line of startups that got acquired.