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Summary:

Microsoft is way behind the times on user-generated video, but it’s aiming to catch up. Its new Soapbox product is trying to gain an edge by learning from what’s out there and integrating with other internal products. And with 465 million monthly MSN users, Soapbox has […]

Microsoft is way behind the times on user-generated video, but it’s aiming to catch up. Its new Soapbox product is trying to gain an edge by learning from what’s out there and integrating with other internal products. And with 465 million monthly MSN users, Soapbox has a longer runway than the hundreds of video aggregation plays out there.

Soapbox, which was first announced in September, is currently in private beta. NewTeeVee recently caught up with Rob Bennett, general manager of entertainment and video services for MSN, to find out how things are going.

Bennett reports Soapbox is on track to launch publicly around March. The project evolved out of MSN Video in January of this year. It currently has “several hundred thousand” beta testers.

All in the family

Though it would be hard to say integration is a strong point at Microsoft, Bennett promises tie-ins with Zune, Xbox, MSN Messenger/Windows Live Messenger, Windows Mobile, and Windows Media Center (exhibit a: terrible brand consistency). Soapbox does focus on the slice of content that’s user-generated, but it’s part of the same group as MSN’s licensed content and original programming.

The most interesting integrations are with instant messaging and Windows Mobile, and both should be released within the next month, says Bennett. Users will be able to watch videos from within Microsoft’s IM clients for a social viewing experience. (The Soapbox player will fly out to the right of an existing conversation window.)

On the mobile, Soapbox is about to release an application for browsing videos on Windows Mobile phones, and a mobile uploader should follow. This will allow for full access to the Soapbox site, unlike comparable recent Verizon deals. Bennett said carrier relationships will also eventually be part of the plan, but the first priority is getting something working on phones.

Microsoft uses Flash?!

We like the interface, but not enough that we would regularly go to Soapbox to see content that’s available elsewhere. Some nice little improvements over YouTube and other sites are video plays uninterrupted when you shift to full-screen, and commenting, tagging, and emailing videos happens within a pane below videos. Like we said, little things.

Also, in a nice move for Microsoft, Soapbox doesn’t force Windows Media down your throat. It autodetects if visitors are not running Internet Explorer, and if so, plays in Flash for Firefox and Safari (see our initial coverage). This initially came out of a partnership with the Associated Press, and is now extending to the beta of video.msn.com. “A lot of content creators are running on Macs,” says Bennett, “so we wanted to make sure our service was accessible to them.”

Bennett didn’t rule out offering incentives for video creators, but he said nothing had been determined yet. His suggestion would be to reward users with Microsoft Points (the ones used for Xbox and Zune). That could possibly extend to users who tag and watch videos as well as create them.

Verdict

Soapbox is not going to dramatically ransack online video market share. YouTube loyalists may soon be fleeing from the influence of The Man, but those kind of folks won’t be looking for cover at Microsoft. And the days of Lazy Sunday catalysts are over; you can’t keep unlicensed popular clips from spreading to all the competition. However, at this point, it’d be silly for Microsoft NOT to have a way for users to upload their own clips.

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