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Social networks need their Outlook Express moment

What we are waiting for in social networks is not for some newer, better, more privacy-aware network to replace Facebook (whose account I recently deleted) but a successful desktop or web application that will transparently work with Facebook, Twitter, and all new and aspiring networks.

In email, we had Outlook Express, that was installed automatically in every Windows computer and, till a few years ago, was what the majority of people would use. It didn't matter what email system they were on; it mattered only that it worked with POP3 and SMTP protocols. When instant messaging came along, there was less uniformity. Sure there were programs like Trillium which could work with a number of accounts. But you would go any public computer and find ICQ, Messenger and a few others competing for attention. Social networks brought new complexity to the communications mess, with most people trying to overcome the problem by standardizing on Facebook. We can only hope that it does not gain the same stranglehold as, say Microsoft Word did for documents.

Yet despite the dominance of Facebook, there are still many other networks that people use, either because they offer a different feature set or occupy a different social niche. And it's confusing to have to traverse many networks in order to get news, photos and updates from our friends. Some people, still use email in order to tie the strands together through updates to their mail box.

What we need is an interface that goes beyond email in its ability to bring the core functionality (by which I mean posting of statuses, media, links and comments) of multiple networks into the same social stream. It should not, like Facebook, be a network that condescendingly or as an afterthought accepts statuses from other networks, but an independent, universal web or desktop application. Of course, we can't seriously expect that just one application or protocol will rule the market, but it would be helpful if the major operating systems would create some kind of default social network application like Microsoft did with Outlook Express. There might also be justification for the same application to handle email (as does the web application Threadsy) since it can be useful, when writing an email, to check out our correspondent's social stream.

The challenge, of course is to create an application that does not grow too complex. But the smartphone and tablet market is helping to bring us application designs that are friendly and accessible.

Ubuntu comes with a simple default application, Gwibber, which allows us to incorporate status streams from at least 3 networks: Facebook, Twitter and Identi.ca. Gwibber needs to extend its functionality, and other operating systems need to jump on board and bring us a default client that can handle core functionality of our social networking needs. Meanwhile, the leading social networks could extend their APIs and work together on common protocols, just as the browser companies work together, more successfully than in the past, on web standards. Social networking is too big and is becoming too important a part of our lives to be the province of any one company.