Microsoft effort targets young Web chatters


Some of the youngest employees at Microsoft are getting ready for a public test of a software program they've been working on for 18 months.

The group, part of the company's NetGen division, recently started beta testing on a product called Threedegrees, an instant-messaging program geared at users ages 13 to 24.

The program targets some of the key interests of that demographic, which, predictably, include online socializing as well as music- and photo-sharing.

Threedegrees is free, but users will need to have a high-speed Internet connection. Users also will need to have the Windows XP operating system, an update to the system called Service Pack 1, another update called Windows XP Peer-to-Peer Update and the MSN Messenger 5 instant-messaging program. Once those are installed, a user can create online groups of up to 10 people and can be a member of more than one group.

Members can chat and send animations to each others' desktops. Unlike other instant-messaging programs, group members can't share music or data files with each other.

Instead, Threedegrees offers something similar to an online jukebox that plays members' music to everyone in the group. Members can send their own music to the jukebox, which has a limit of 60 songs, but they can't download anyone else's music files.

The bit rate of those songs is only 64 kilobits per second, about half of what is needed to produce the sound quality found on most compact discs. The files are encrypted and sent from one user to the group and disappear once that person leaves.

Similarly, photos can be shared within the group, but not downloaded.

NetGen group manager Tammy Savage explored the relationship between youth and technology in early 2000, when she persuaded 12 undergraduates from Oberlin College in Ohio to live in a house in the Green Lake area of Seattle during their winter break. She observed how the students interacted with each other.

She built a NetGen team with recent college graduates 18 months ago. The group set up shop in a Microsoft building in downtown Seattle. The team also spent three days pondering NetGen ideas at a retreat in Snoqualmie, Wash.

"They've grown up with the Internet, and it's just such a natural part of their life," said Savage, 33. "They don't have the constraints that somebody like I would have, in terms of dreaming."

Typically, computer users in the 13-24 age group have multiple instant-messaging programs running at one time. The major players in the field include America Online's Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger and the Yahoo! Messenger programs.

Microsoft's goal in this project is to drive instant messaging forward, particularly for users who are sophisticated when it comes to the Internet, said Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Jupiter Research.

"I don't necessarily see this as a product to derive revenues from directly," Gartenberg said.

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