Foley on Microsoft
Breathing New Life into Microsoft 'Live'
After a frenzied start, why is Live now laying low?
Microsoft has gone almost completely dark regarding its "Live" strategy
over the past few months. But does lack of light mean there's no more fire left
in Microsoft's belly for its overarching services scheme?
If my answer were yes, that would be the end of this column. But I don't think
Live is fading from view. Instead, I'd argue that Microsoft is in the midst
of some serious soul-searching and course-reversal in terms of what Live is
and where it's going. It's still definitely going somewhere, and will become
increasingly important to the company's future as time passes.
Microsoft launched its "Live" master plan, with much fanfare, just
over a year ago. In the following months, the Windows, Office and CRM Live teams
rolled out a staggering number of Live point products -- by my count, more than
40 beta, if not final, releases.
Then the momentum all but stopped. The pace of new product releases slowed.
Many of the expected services we knew by code name only (LiveDrive, Live Search
Translation, Live publishing portal, etc.) failed to materialize. Microsoft's
stated intent to flesh out its Windows Live developer strategy at the Mix '06
conference in March 2006 has stalled.
Microsoft is still working toward the ideal that Live will become a way for
Microsoft to maintain its "fat client" (and server) legacy, while
still providing some of the most compelling "Software as a Service"
functionality in which at least some group of customers is seemingly interested.
So what's behind the Live cool down? I have a few theories:
There's a new Live sheriff in town. And he's one that likes to shoot
first and ask questions later. Steven Sinofsky, senior vice president of Windows
and Windows Live Engineering, is a guy who likes to under-promise and over-deliver
-- not the other way around. Plugging informational leaks is one of his hallmarks.
Is it any wonder, as the Windows Live watchers over on LiveSide.net recently
noted, that most of the existing Windows Live blogs "only talk about vacation
plans or gingerbread recipes" these days?
Microsoft has realized it can't beat Google in search, so it needs to downplay
the importance of it. When Microsoft first went public with its Live vision,
the majority of its services and strategies revolved around becoming a search
player on par with Google. But if you listen to recent Microsoft speeches about
Live, Microsoft execs now are delivering a very different message. At a mid-December
Lehman Brothers Technology Conference, Steve Berkowitz, senior vice president
of Microsoft's Online Services unit, told Wall Street analysts that search had
become a commodity, and that it was "sticky apps" and "user experiences"
that ultimately win advertisers' -- and consumers' -- hearts and minds.
The company is scrambling to regain control of its too-rapidly proliferating
family of Live services. Like Google, Microsoft has realized it needs to
pare down its burgeoning list of services and focus on the ones most likely
to generate revenues. Much was made of Google's decision in early December to
kill Google Answers. But word is the Windows Live team is in the midst of its
own purge. The possible downside? Windows Live could end up looking more like
the old MSN than the new, innovative and agile services factory it initially
seemed to be.
Microsoft can't figure out how to convey its Live strategy shifts to Wall
Street (and its customers) so that it won't set off a round of panic. While
we're on the topic of MSN, it's a little known fact that Microsoft quietly decided
a couple of months ago to rescue its entertainment portal and bring it back
to relevance. Earlier this year, Microsoft was on the verge of letting MSN simply
wither away. But then someone inside realized that by doing so, Microsoft would
let 465 million unique visitors per month slip through its fingers. The new
goal is to push MSN users toward the various Live properties and convince them
of the benefits of Live Messenger, Live Mail and Live Spaces.
It surprises me when I hear Live dismissed as little more than a branding strategy.
Sure, Live is complex and constantly evolving. But it's also where Microsoft
will be putting much of its marketing muscle and brainpower in the coming years.
What's your take? Write me at email@example.com.
Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.