I really haven't seen all that much being said about Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) stab at social networking. Earlier this year, management spruced up its MSN Spaces site and relaunched it as Microsoft Live Spaces. It's now a thinly guised clone of News Corp.'s (NYSE:NWS) MySpace, with a stronger emphasis on the blogging functionality. So I figured it was time to go kick Mr. Softy in the shins.

As expected, the landing page is full of that corporate shade of blue that screams out "I'm Microsoft, by gum" and leaves you shaking your head at the software giant's efforts to be cool. On the surface, it's a valiant attempt to reach out to owners who snap up their Zunes in brown -- apparently, that isn't all that big of a banquet hall, either.

Doing a universal search show that there are around 468,000 accounts on Live Spaces. It's a meaty number -- even if a good chunk of those users aren't necessarily active -- yet it's still a far cry from the 142 million "friends" that MySpace has attracted over the years.

Under normal circumstances, this story would have ended three paragraphs ago. An attempt by Microsoft to make it in social networking would have been a recipe for a train wreck, similar to when Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) tried to give it a go with its School Your Way site this summer. That idea didn't make it past its second month. However, there is a new ingredient in the Microsoft pie this time: humility.

Global domination by sleeping with the enemy
The company's past is littered with what critics would call bullying tactics that helped shove everything from its Web browser to application software to multimedia players down the consumer's throat. By controlling the market for operating-system software, its success has been as easy as either piggybacking on or shoehorning the new venture into its Windows platform.

That has been changing lately. In the non-PC space, Microsoft is behind the leaders in video-game consoles and portable digital music players. That isn't much of a surprise, given that the company's the away team in those contests, yet Microsoft is now finding out that it's also a lot harder to dominate the market in new PC-based categories, such as antivirus software and paid search. The established competition is too strong, and keeping up is a daunting challenge, even with a great product.

This brings us back to the humbling collection of gadgets that Live Spaces arms its community with. Want to embed videos from Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube video-sharing site? Have some snapshots on Yahoo!'s (NASDAQ:YHOO) Flickr that you want to broadcast to your Live Spaces buddies? Microsoft offers gadgets that specifically single out those sites.

A younger, more infallible Mr. Softy would never dream of naming names. Sure, HTML-savvy users could have done it anyway, but now the company is willing to bend over backwards even if it's at the expense of legitimizing its rivals.

That isn't an admission of defeat. Live Spaces realizes that it has some formidable opponents in social networking and blogging. It can always try to specialize, the way LinkedIn has with corporate networking, but Microsoft isn't really a niche player. It wants to serve the masses, and that means that it has to cater to them, too.

Bending Mr. Softy like a pretzel
The company's elasticity will come into play even when it's the home team. Google and Yahoo! have invaded Microsoft's space with desktop-search applications. Google is digging even deeper with its suite of server-stored free application software.

Even something as simple as its stronghold in operating software will be tested in the coming years, with the computing resurgence over at Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and companies such as Red Hat (NYSE:RHT) out to popularize open-source platforms. Yes, Microsoft will be a force over the next few years, but way too many industry analysts are pointing to Windows Vista as the last great operating system, because so much of the computing experience now takes place online. In other words, Microsoft may not be the home team even in its core areas for much longer.

So I applaud the company for its humility with Live Spaces. It would rather have users upload their videos through MSN Soapbox, but it is smart enough not to get in the way of the YouTube viral stampede? MSN Photos never really took off, so giving Flickr its due is the right thing to do. Simple gestures? Sure, but it's a healthy indicator that Microsoft isn't going to let pride get in the way of staving off extinction.

Well done, Microsoft. Humility looks good on you.

Microsoft and Wal-Mart are Inside Value recommendations, and Yahoo! is an active Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick.

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz hasn't bookmarked any of MSN's Live sites yet, though he's been entertained by its "QnA" section. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.