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But Fotolog’s content is static: users must check in periodically to see what others have said about their photos. At Vancouver, British Columbia-based Ludicorp, programmers have made it easy to share photos during real-time conversations. Flickr.com, launched by Ludicorp in February, lets users upload photos to personal “shoeboxes,” set up group instant-messaging conferences with their friends, tag all or parts of a photo with personal notes, and intersperse their text-based conversations with images simply by dragging photos from their shoeboxes to the messaging window. As with Fotolog, basic membership in Flickr is free, but the company plans to introduce subscription-only “pro” accounts offering more storage.

And now, in perhaps the ultimate confirmation that photo sharing is a hot trend, the world’s largest software company is getting into the act. At Microsoft Research in Redmond, WA, researchers in the company’s social-computing group are working on a program code-named Wallop. It offers most of the features of Fotolog and Flickr but takes the idea of photo-as-conversation-starter several steps further.

For example, when a user adds a personal note to a photo-say, a wry comment on a photo of a tipsy coworker at the company picnic-a notice about the comment is automatically e-mailed to the people on the user’s friends list or to an extended network of contacts. The program follows the ensuing thread of e-mail conversation and lets users display graphical depictions of their social networks so they can see who’s online and who has added comments recently. Wallop members will eventually be able to share music files and videos as well, says Sean Kelly, a software developer in the Microsoft group.

About 150 volunteers are trying the software, including a group of Puget Sound paragliders who use the service to share and discuss photos of their latest outings. If the researchers can figure out how to support thousands of simultaneous users, a much larger trial may get under way later this year. But despite all the programming work going into Wallop, it “isn’t necessarily a technology project at all,” says Kelly. “It’s more about how these groups of friends are evolving and what kind of technology they are going to need in the future, and how the Web and multimedia can all play a part.”

It’s unclear how soon Wallop, or parts of it, might be folded into fully supported Microsoft products such as MSN. But whatever the timetable, Wallop represents one of Microsoft’s biggest precommercial forays into social computing. “I would think that any type of photo-sharing program that they introduce-particularly if it’s part of Windows or MSN-is going to be successful,” says InfoTrends’ Aldort.

At bottom, projects like Wallop and Flickr are a response to the emergence of a generation of people for whom computing is primarily a way to create and strengthen social ties. In Japan, the United States, and Canada, for example, gadget-crazy consumers are using their cell phones, laptops, digital cameras, camera phones, and wireless Internet connections to keep in near-constant touch with their friends and colleagues. “There’s a sense that you are carrying your social relations around with you in your pocket,” says Mizuko Ito, a University of Southern California anthropologist who studies cell-phone use in Japan. Photo-sharing sites are becoming both an archive and a launching point for such interactions. And for Internet users-not to mention software and device makers-that adds up to a very pretty picture.

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