Parents and educators, take note: Software giant Microsoft Corp. thinks it just might understand today’s teenagers—or at least how they behave online.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company is betting its new software, called threedegrees, will define hipness in greasing teen social connections—and help it capture a budding generation from competitors led by America Online.

Aimed at the 13-24 age group, the software, now in beta-testing, is like high-octane instant-messaging.

Users can create groups of up to 10 people, trade messages, listen to music from each other’s collections, and share photos. Each group has its own icon and allows users to create new groups that add—or drop—others at will.

Forget high-school hallways: The clique has now moved online.

It’s the first product out of Microsoft’s new “NetGen” team, which focuses on the “first generation to grow up with the internet,” Will Poole, a Microsoft senior vice president, said in an eMail message. “They are early adopters, and the fabric of the internet is woven into their everyday lives—they explore, they try new things, and they influence the broad consumer market.”

Microsoft isn’t the only company looking to curry favor with the consumer of the future. AOL, whose instant-messaging service is popular among teens, is working on new software to retain its younger base, reportedly by incorporating aspects of eMail software.

AOL would not discuss its efforts when contacted by a reporter. But one thing seems likely: Makers of educational software will be closely watching these and other initiatives, which could influence how students interact with tomorrow’s technologies both inside and outside of school.

The seeds for threedegrees came from a Not-Net-Gen’er, Tammy Savage, now 33.

“Having fun with friends is their No. 1 priority,” Savage said of young people. A 10-year Microsoft employee who started in business development, Savage grew threedegrees out of a reality TV-like experiment with college students.

In 2000, she gathered 12 students from Oberlin College in Ohio, the alma mater of a colleague who had suggested a professor to contact. The students spent three weeks in a house in the granola-and-polar fleece neighborhood of Greenlake in Seattle.

Savage studied the students’ use of technology as they tried to come up with a business plan and found that they were instant-messaging and web surfing even before their morning coffee.

Eureka, thought Savage. The youths of the Net Generation think of the internet in the same way people in general think of oxygen. In other words, they don’t.

Next, Savage assembled the future NetGen team—a group of 20-somethings—for a three-day retreat in 2001, and the program that eventually become threedegrees emerged.

Named after the “six degrees of separation” idea that any two people are connected to one another through a series of relationships, the program has limited uses now. But it might add video gaming and other shared functions in the future, Savage said.

For now, a user can invite up to nine others to a group for chatting, and instantly send photos to the whole group with a single computer mouse motion. A user can also send the group “winks,” or audiovisual files such as Bill Gates accompanied by a voice saying “Back to Work” or a robot who crashes through the screen.

Threedegrees also allows group members to listen to music stored on their friends’ computers—without allowing copying. The software includes technology that only allows a user’s music to be played when he or she is logged on, a nod to the music industry’s piracy concerns.

The program, which requires the latest version of Windows XP and other components, creates a mini-network of users’ personal computers to share information as well as processing power.

Microsoft would not disclose how many people are participating in the beta-testing, which is expected to wrap up this summer. Spokeswoman Erin Cullen said the company has not yet decided whether to charge for the service.

Threedegrees eventually could find its way into business software or other Microsoft products, said Michael Gartenberg, research director for Jupiter Research. Instead of 10 teenagers, 10 educators might chat over the beefed-up instant-messaging system.

Microsoft offers business-oriented collaboration software already, but its NetMeeting and SharePoint products have not seen wide adoption. To bolster its efforts, it signed a deal earlier this year to buy PlaceWare Inc., an online collaboration service provider. Microsoft has also invested in Groove Networks, a collaboration software firm.

Threedegrees might also be a way for Microsoft to chip away at AOL’s customer base, and perhaps make its MSN Internet service more appealing, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, an independent research firm.

For those who study teenagers’ use of the internet, instant-messaging is the right starting point for attracting the teenage set.

“It’s allowing you to create online groups,” said Amanda Lenhart, a research specialist for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. “For good or for evil, it’s a fact of life in middle school or high school.”

Links:

Microsoft threedegrees
http://www.threedegrees.com

Pew Internet & American Life Project
http://www.pewinternet.org