Tonight Microsoft is launching two more products into its suite of Windows Live branded consumer web apps – Windows Live Photo Gallery Beta and Windows Live Folders Beta. According to Microsoft, tonight also marks the beginning of the next stage of the Windows Live rollout. This “next generation” of Windows Live has the goal of being a more cohesive suite of products than in the first phase.
I spoke to Brian Hall, General Manager for Windows Live, this week to find out more about Microsoft’s plans for Windows Live and how it is evolving.
The two new products are fairly typical web 2.0 products – TechCrunch has a good write-up. But just quickly, Photo Gallery is a Flickr-like photo sharing app with all the usual 2.0 bells and whistles (tags, sync between camera and PC, etc). Windows Live Folders is an online storage app, with P2P and file sync features. It is also, I discovered, a re-branding of LiveDrive.
In this post we’ll explore the notion that the “next generation” of Windows Live has arrived. What does that mean exactly?
Windows Live Progress, Since November 05
The first stage of Windows Live, which began when Bill Gates announced the Windows Live strategy in November 2005, has been marked by a lot of beta web applications and ‘software as a service’ apps (hybrid desktop/browser apps). Windows Live has not been a smooth rollout – in fact many of the products have been disjointed and confusingly branded. Some products (e.g. the start page live.com) have also been very raw and the strategy at times unclear.
Probably the most overriding impression of Windows Live over the past year or two has been the branding confusion. And in particular widespread confusion about how Windows Live overlaps with MSN. I asked Brian about the branding problems (see below), but first let’s look at what Windows Live is aiming to become.
What is Windows Live, circa June 2007?
During my talk with Brian, the following slide was presented:
You can see that the desktop/browser hybrid model is to the fore (the words ‘seamless’ and ‘integrated’ are used a lot nowadays).
In terms of the types of products represented under the umbrella Windows Live, they are: Communication, Sharing, Anywhere Access, Safety. The first two (Communication, Sharing) are very much typical web 2.0 consumer apps – email, social networking, photo sharing, etc. These are the same apps that Google, Yahoo and others have. The other two (Anywhere Access, Safety) are more the types of apps we traditionally expect from Microsoft – but under Windows Live they are delivered as ‘software as a service’, to use their term, rather than traditional shrink-wrap products.
Brian told me that the next generation of Windows Live will be “more cohesive” and much more of a proper suite. As Nick at Techcrunch noted, this includes releasing all the pieces of the Live Suite as a single upgradeable download – instead of separate programs and services as they are now.
Here is the other slide that was presented to me, which shows some of Microsoft’s other goals with Windows Live:
The above 3 points all play to Microsoft’s strengths – multi platforms, leveraging Windows, and using ‘software + services’ to provide web 2.0 capabilities like sharing.
Brand Confusion Still Reigns
Returning now to the branding. I asked how far has Microsoft come in clarifying the confusion between the new Windows Live brand and the existing MSN brand. Brian said this will become more clear in the second generation of Windows Live; and that much of the confusion arose in the first place because some MSN services have been transitioned across to Windows Live – e.g. Hotmail was initially an MSN product, but now it is Windows Live Mail (although Hotmail is still being used as part of the brand).
The Hotmail example clearly shows there is still a lot of work to do in the branding. But Brian said that, broadly speaking, MSN = content and news, while Windows Live refers to the 4 categories mentioned above (communication, sharing, anywhere access, safety).
It also doesn’t help that the product names continue to chop and change, or there is more than one product doing similar things. e.g. LiveDrive has become Windows Live Folders. And then there is FolderShare, which Microsoft acquired in 2005. So, still a lot of work to do on branding!
Conclusion: Cohesion Some Way Off
Brian emphasized that this is just the beginning of Stage 2 of Windows Live, and their overall aim is to make Windows Live more cohesive – while continuing to bring products out of beta and refine the desktop/browser vision.
My impression is that Windows Live is still a fragmented vision, with a few too many products. But this has been a common ailment amongst the big Internet companies in this era of the Web. Yahoo famously brought out a Peanut Butter manifesto to try and focus its product range. And even Google, which has otherwise been the leader in bigco web apps, has had its problems – with too many products, lack of integrated suites (e.g. in Web Office) and an at-times awful branding (e.g. the original ‘Google Apps For Your Domain’).
But Microsoft has more of a challenge than Google or Yahoo, because it is traditionally a desktop software company – whereas the other two are ‘Web native’. Windows Live is coming along nicely, but there is a long way to go yet before it becomes truly cohesive – and compelling.