Microsoft may have used its TechEd developer conference in Boston this week to generate new enthusiasm for the company's Windows Live services programme, but it seems attendees still have little idea of what Live is all about.
"After talking to about 25 customers in the first 30 minutes, it was abundantly clear that customers have no idea at all what Windows Live is, or how it relates to Windows or MSN," said Trevin Chow, a lead programme manager working with the Windows Live ID team, in a personal blog entry.
Chow manned the Windows Live booth for the first day of TechEd and said he was surprised at how little awareness of Windows Live had reached the general public, more than seven months after launch. "The most frequent question was 'What is Windows Live?'," he wrote. "Frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves for this mess. Clearly our external communication failed somewhere."
Live is most easily described as Microsoft's response to the Google phenomenon, although Microsoft denies Google has anything to do with it. So far, Live consists of beta online tools and MSN services (such as Hotmail) relaunched with a more "Web 2.0" feel. Ultimately Microsoft plans to make the Live branding ubiquitous for its online properties - for instance, Hotmail is being rebranded as Windows Live Mail.
Microsoft is heavily promoting Live at TechEd, with Ray Ozzie including it in his opening keynote, and a strategy session devoted to Live on Tuesday morning (which was, reportedly, sparsely attended). The company is trying to get more developers onto the Live bandwagon, to match the success Google has had with its similar programmes. As part of this effort Microsoft launched the Windows Live Dev site last week, providing Live code samples, interfaces, documentation and the like.
Live is anything but a Microsoft side-project. The company has upwards of 20 Live services in various stages of testing and deployment, including search, Web mail and messaging, and has told investors it will increase capital spending for Live and MSN from $300 million per year to $500 million, starting next year.
Even so, Microsoft has provided few details on what Live is and precisely how it relates to Windows, Office, MSN and other products. Since Live's launch on 1 November, 2005, industry observers have warned that not only is the Live concept too slippery, the name directly overlaps with other Microsoft brands, such as Office Live, launched at the same time as Windows Live but only partly related, and older products such as Office Live Meeting and Office Live Communications Server.
"I'm sceptical of Live's appeal," said Jupiter Research analyst Joe Wilcox in a research note at the time of the launch. "Live certainly doesn't grab me, and, yes, there is uncertainty about what it means. Is it supposed to mean the living Web? Maybe community or safety?"
The branding issue is important because, for now at least, Live is mainly about branding, according to some analysts. "Most of what's new is what's old, but with a new name," Wilcox said in the research note. "Microsoft already offers much of what could be considered Windows Live services through MSN. Many of the forthcoming Office Live services, such as domain registration and hosting, already are available from Microsoft's Small Business Web site."
Chow said he is not too concerned about the confusion, partly because he says TechEd attendees are not really the core audience for Live - being system administrators and the like, rather than end users. "I'm confident we can recover... it will just take much longer than anyone ever expected," he wrote. "Quite honestly, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter if consumers don't 'get' what Windows Live is, as long as they like, and use, the services and products we ship."
Microsoft could not immediately provide comment, but has said it is planning more vocal marketing as it continues to finalise the release of more Live services.
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