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How Large Will Windows Live Live?

It should be an interesting next year or two for Brian Hall, general manager of Microsoft's Windows Live business. Over that time, Hall will be stepping up efforts to pull a range of online products and services together into a more cohesive strategy that takes Microsoft's most daunting competitor -- Google Inc. -- head on. Hall will be doing this without the help of Yahoo! Inc.'s products and services, thanks to Microsoft's failed attempt to buy that company earlier this year.

Included in the Windows Live lineup are Hotmail, with some 350 million active users, and Messenger, with more than 300 million active users, so Hall does have some formidable weapons to fight Google in the search and advertising markets. He'll have to give Live's branding image a B-12 shot, however, as many people remain confused about the nature of the services under its umbrella.

While the focus of Windows Live is largely consumer-oriented, Hall believes many of Windows Live's products and technologies can be adapted for business, and he sees opportunities there. Hall sat down with Redmond Editor Ed Scannell to discuss how Microsoft will better integrate its Windows Live offerings, as well as how those offerings might integrate with the company's Live Mesh and a number of social networks.

Redmond: Some analysts have criticized Microsoft's overall online strategy as scattered and needing to be more integrated. How do you see it?
Hall: We look first at what customers are looking for and how can we use technology to deliver on what they need. So your point about integration is an important one. People really do have different reasons for going online; they're all trying to accomplish different things. We think, however, there are three distinct centers of gravity across which you must have a good networking strategy.

First, when you want to search for something, having a great destination search offering is incredibly important. Second, as the PC and other devices become true tools in both the personal and professional realms, people will use them more to keep in touch with people they care about. That's certainly true with IM and e-mail, and now with social networks. Third, is keeping in touch with what's happening in the world. The more that becomes personalized and is focused on what you want to learn about, the better. We feel there are centers of gravity in each of those three domains, but they need to work well together.

What role might the PC have in this overall integration strategy?
We think there's an opportunity for integration in a PC-based experience. There has been a huge swing in the last six or seven years in the center of gravity for applications being in the browser. There are a ton of reasons why we think browser-based access to stuff is really important. We think we can do more so that when you boot your PC, you're immediately logged into your community and are getting at all the stuff you need to. This is where you'll see Microsoft investing more than anyone else.

"We think we can do more so that when you boot your PC, you're immediately logged into your community and are getting at all the stuff you need to. This is where you'll see Microsoft investing more than anyone else."
Brian Hall, General Manager, Windows Live Business, Microsoft

One more way to ensure the fat client lives on?
Yes. Making sure you're having a rich e-mail client experience, a rich photo experience, a rich video experience, as well as blogging and composing. And all that comes together in a way that's not just about an application that helps me do specific things I want to do. It's also about drawing things together into an integrated, what's-going-on-in-my-life kind of way. We think that's rife with opportunity.

How much missionary work is there to convince larger companies to adopt some of this consumer-oriented technology?
It's not so much missionary work, but has more to do with an opportunity to prove it. I don't think it's something we need to get up on our stump about and say, 'no, you should be building this and that for Windows.' It's a case where seeing is believing, and what can be done with things like Silverlight or the Windows Presentation Foundation.

What are you doing to attract developers to your platforms in the online world? What's the mix going to be of new-age developers and your more traditional ISVs?
It's a critical part of our strategy. We've always had developers at the heart of what we do. We've always known that if we build a platform that allows people to take advantage of the resources and infrastructure, we could attract people to build great things we couldn't have dreamed up, and then we're going to be way more successful.

There are three important layers to our online platform. There's the base infrastructure layer -- how you get an app up and rolling -- that we call the Global Foundation Services. We're investing a lot there. The second layer is the core infrastructure services with things like the address book, federation, storage and tunneling -- the gory stuff that makes it possible for an application to be aware of all the resources. The third layer is finished services where people can build on the assets we've built out.

Recently Microsoft seems to be gravitating more toward a portal strategy with MSN and delivering more services from there.
What you're referring to is less a portal strategy and more about how we offer a way for people to communicate and share in an integrated fashion. Whether you call that a portal or not, is a different question. We think there should be a good starting point that brings all that together. When we look at it today, the average consumer has multiple e-mail addresses and IM accounts, and a number of social networks. This is causing people to go from place to place to place to place to communicate in different ways with different sets of people with different modalities. We think there's a good opportunity for a central hub for how you communicate and share.

So what is MSN's role in the company's larger online strategy?
MSN will help by fusing content into that experience. In fact, a lot of what I communicate with other people about involves content. When I read an article on MSN or the Wall Street Journal, for instance, that's what sparks a conversation I want to have with someone. I'd bet that right now there's more content-sharing happening in a month in Hotmail than there is in all of the Digg, Del.icio.us and all the social-network discussions in an entire year combined.

With hundreds of millions of e-mail addresses at your disposal, it would seem Hotmail would be an important part of your online strategy for a couple of reasons.
Well, not just the e-mail addresses, but the fact people are spending time communicating with others through that tool. For certain demographics this is the primary way they communicate. One thing that Messenger serves as, for instance, is as a natural jumping-off point when you boot up your computer. It's something that can help draw you into your community or social networks. It can be more than just a set of links and a Web site.

Where does Live Mesh fit in?
On the platform side -- that's the core of Live Mesh. So rather than having one monolithic [application] release that takes in all three critical components -- namely cloud storage, peer-to-peer and the platform -- there's Live Mesh. We need to make strong forward progress on all three of those components to where the storage systems are the same, the people model is the same and things can be seamlessly shared across them all. You'll see more integration across them in the midterm. We know we must have great cloud storage, and a peer-to-peer model that can include Macs and mobile devices like phones -- plus a platform that lets anyone access and share data easily.

Any interest coming from corporate IT shops to adapt this for them?
There are two areas that are really important there. First, people at work want to keep in touch with their [personal] world. So we looked at making our communications services -- especially calendaring, contact lists and e-mails -- work great with Outlook. But we're also making sure it works great with phones that are used in a business context. We've done a lot of work with Nokia and Windows Mobile to where when I get a new phone I can put my Exchange credentials in, put my Windows Live credentials in and 15 minutes later all the stuff I care about is all right there.

The second area is the platform. Increasingly, people are working more from home or remotely. So a key part of our Live Mesh vision is making it into something that's enterprise-controllable, federates into the enterprise, and works with storage and applications models that are most important in an enterprise.

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