Microsoft has launched a private beta of its new Microsoft Vine service, a social-networking tool that allow small groups to trade vital information. Microsoft Vine is a downloadable application that allows you to send out Twitter-style alerts and longer reports, and keep track of your Vine contacts.

That may sound a lot like a standard social network, but Vine was built solely as a way to organise important information among organisations such as sports teams, or to stay in touch with neighbours, family and friends during an emergency. Right now, Vine is only available for computers running Windows XP with SP2 or Windows Vista 32- and 64-bit editions.

Microsoft Vine screenshot

Vine starts at the dashboard, which pops up as a widget-like window on your desktop. You sign into Vine using your Windows Live ID (Microsoft has not said whether your Messenger contacts would be automatically pulled in to your Vine network). Vine lets you control the information you want to send out by organising your contacts into groups; it also lets you decide who can send information to you.

Vine's reports section lets you get the word out with four basic message templates: let your family know you're safe; notify a neighbour that you're going to be out of town; keep people informed of situations that matter; and general information. Reports can be used to send out scheduling information, trade news reports and other detailed information. And if you want to be certain that members of a particular group receive your alert you can also send out direct text messages or emails from Vine's dashboard.

You also can use Vine to discover information about a specific area that's been affected by a natural disaster or freak weather, to check that your friends and family are safe. Select the region from a predefined list that you created earlier and the map zooms in on that location. Vine then culls information from more than 20,000 news sources and public information services.

Microsoft Vine logo

Any notices relevant to that area appear as a blue pop-up, and you can then choose to open the full story in a web browser. Below the places map is a smaller map with little pins representing the people in your Vine network. If anyone has sent you an alert, report, or updated their Facebook status you will be notified on the dashboard. You can also send and receive Vine alerts via text message or email.

Microsoft says it has plans in the future to incorporate more ways to interact with Vine, including Twitter, landline telephones, and special needs devices (think Life Alert). The idea is to make Vine as inclusive a service as possible and allow people to interact with Vine in a way that feels natural to them. Vine is in private beta right now and only open to 10,000 people based in the Seattle area in the US. There are future beta tests planned for undisclosed locations somewhere in the American Midwest and an isolated island community, according to the Seattle Times.

Vine was inspired by the confusion that arose in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastating effects on the Gulf Coast. After four years of research and study, Microsoft came out with Vine, which the company calls a "societal networking" service. Tools similar to Vine, such as Twitter, have already proven their value for newsgathering during events such as the US Airways crash near Manhattan and the terror attacks in Bombay. Twitter was also used as an organisational tool for protesters during the 2008 US Republican National Convention.

Without testing the actual product it's hard to say how well Vine actually works under real-world conditions. But if this new service can do the job as advertised, then Microsoft may have created a powerful tool capitalising on the concepts behind Twitter and social networks such as Facebook. Vine is currently a free service, and Microsoft has yet to release any monetisation plans for Vine. For complete system requirements you can download Microsoft's Vine Fact Sheet (PDF) or check out the firm's short Vine demo video.

See also:

Social-networking sites: the complete guide

Swine Flu spreads on Twitter

Facebook vote? What Facebook vote?

Ian Paul writes for PC World