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Windows Live: Don’t Live and Let Die

Windows Live has had many lives.  It started as a single page at www.live.com, where you could set up various widgets in a tiled configuration.  The widgets mostly consumed RSS feeds and the idea was that you could have a home page where the content updated dynamically; i.e. where the content was “live.” I remember when the service was still in Beta and called Start.com; Robert Scoble, then a Microsoft employee, was hawking it pretty hard.  It was kind of cool for its time, but it petered out, as did Scoble’s stint at Microsoft a year later.

The next phase of Live saw the brand applied to a number of services and to Internet properties that had already existed under the MSN brand.  MSN Messenger became Windows Live Messenger (after a brief stint as .NET Messenger – don’t get me started on that one).  MSN Spaces became Windows Live Spaces.  Oddly, the original www.live.com page went the other way and is now my.msn.com, but still, you get the idea.  Redmond thought The Butterfly wasn’t flying high enough, and that applying the Windows brand to some its properties might give them new life.

Except the Windows brand was intermittent.  Some properties had the “Live” moniker without the “Windows” prefix on it (Live Mesh, for example); others had the full formal Windows Live name, and others had both (Windows Live Search became plain old Live Search, before it died and was reincarnated as Bing, and Bing Maps had a similar branding lineage).  The difference between Live and Windows Live just wasn’t clear.  It still isn’t: the new Windows Phone 7 will feature Live tiles.

This reminds me quite a lot of Microsoft’s inconsistent usage of “Active” and “ActiveX” in the 1990s.  I am still not clear on whether ActiveX controls could be hosted on the Active Desktop, and for a while Chris Kinsman and I presented a Web development workshop at VBITS (now Visual Studio Live) on both VB6 ActiveX Documents and Active Server Pages, since both held out promise.  The branding police were a bit…ahem…passive in those days.

When Windows Live Waves 2 and 3 came about, it really looked to me like Microsoft was heeding the NYC Subway conductor’s call: “Step lively.”  The brand got cleaned up, the developer story got serious with APIs and .NET controls, both for ASP.NET and Windows Forms (not to mention support for non-Windows platforms), and under the leadership of younger people like Chris Jones and Angus Logan, the network got a lot hipper, with Live ID (formerly Passport) support for OpenID, its own social network, and FriendFeed-like connections to other social networks, including Twitter, Facebook and now 36 others.  Sure, there were still autonomous brands out there, like Hotmail and SkyDrive, but they were reigned in, with Windows Live becoming the “parent” brand and bestowing on them the same look and feel as the other WL properties. 

The addition of Windows Live Essentials, the suite of Windows desktop applications that acted as companions to the online WL products, made the story even better.  Windows Live Essentials, of course, included not just the WL Messenger IM client, but a revamped Outlook Express in Windows Live Mail, an enhanced Office Picture Manager in WL Photo Gallery, an updated Windows Movie Maker in WL Movie Maker, a new blogging tool in Windows Live Writer (with which I am writing this very post), an updated MSN Toolbar in WL Toolbar, and a new child browsing safety product called WL Family Safety.

Windows Live Essentials, in one fell swoop, accomplished several things: it brought badly needed updates to various desktop applications; it separated them from Windows proper, which allowed for more frequent updates, and less hassle from the DOJ, EU and other regulatory bodies; and it provided an excellent mechanism by which to distribute the Silverlight runtime and make its installed base significant.  Also, by offering desktop apps that acted as companions to online offerings (Windows Live Mail for Hotmail, Photo Gallery for WL Photos, WL Writer for WL Spaces, and contact sharing between WL Messenger buddies and contacts on the WL social network), Microsoft showed in a practical way how the “Software Plus Services” vision could work.  The client apps really did (and do) make the online properties more usable, and more fun.

It’s been a while though.  While WL Wave 4’s release is imminent, its release will still mark over a year between waves.  While the dot-com bubble phrase “Internet Time” is at this point cliché, the fact remains that the Internet moves faster than the WL Wave calendar seems to. Software + Services may be workable, but services need to have much faster release cycles than do conventional Microsoft software products.  This is especially important if Windows Phone 7 is to succeed, as it will have significant dependencies on the WL online infrastructure.

In general, Microsoft needs to heed the messaging embedded in its own brands: Redmond’s online strategy needs to be active and alive. It can’t rest passively on its laurels and allow its momentum to die down. 



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