With decidedly little fanfare, Microsoft’s research-oriented FUSE Labs launched a new, student-oriented social network last weekend. While very much an experimental product at this point, So.cl (pronounced “social”) does highlight once more that the Redmond-based software giant is keen to keep its boffins thinking outside the box in order to find the next big thing, first.

So.cl has been put through a series of tests at the University of Washington, Syracuse University, and New York University since December 2011, and Microsoft has been very keen to manage expectations about the project. Rather than make any bold claims about So.cl being a white knight to usurp the reigning Facebook, the company seems instead to be headed in a different, altogether more academic direction, aiming to turn So.cl into a viable platform for younger people to share useful information quickly and easily. As a company blog post from December 2011 states:

So.cl has been designed for students studying social media to extend their educational experience and rethink how they learn and communicate. They can build posts with many elements—photos, video, text, and more—and share them with colleagues. They also can find students with similar interests and build communities around specific educational goals. So.cl might even give students the ability to create their own social tool, customized for their own community.

While the above features are interesting, they’re far from compelling and one could just as easily imagine another more established social network simply rolling such options into their existing platforms, thus nullifying So.cl’s merits. Once we also add the fact that fact that the service launched without any mobile support, it’s clear just how green this project actually is.

So, early days then and at this point it’s anyone’s guess as to whether So.cl will become Microsoft’s academic answer to Google+ or, rather, its Google Wave. You can decide for yourself, as So.cl is open to all comers and just needs a Facebook login or Windows Live account to get started.