Microsoft Live: Old Wine, New Bottle?

Bill Gates introduces Live

Photo by niallkennedy.

Well, today was the big day at Microsoft when they were supposed to announce their Next Big Thing, the strategy that would reposition the company just like their embrace of the Web did in 1995 and the launch of .NET did in 2000.

And what, you ask, is the exciting new hotness? It’s called “Live“.

OK, you say, that’s what it’s called. But what is it, really?

To answer that question, MS rolled out several pieces today:

So far the response to “Live” could be charitably described as “tepid”. Scott Hanselman (one of the authors of “Pro ASP.NET 2.0“) says “I don’t get it… Why does Microsoft feel the need to release Yet Another Web Portal?” Dave Winer calls the “Live” demo “[the] biggest failure I’ve seen in almost 30 years in the biz“. Danny Ayers laments, “How the mighty have fallen.

Of course, not everybody is so downbeat. Tim O’Reilly, for example, opines that “Microsoft clearly now gets that the starting line has been reset, and everything is up for grabs“; at TechCrunch, Michael Arrington says “After what I saw today, I despair for many a silicon valley startup. Seriously.” But most observers aren’t that impressed with the stuff that has been released under the “Live” banner thus far.

I wasn’t at the launch event, but since I’m a recovering Microsoft developer I followed the announcements closely. Overall, I think the truth in this case is somewhere between the two extremes I cited above. Many of the “big-ticket” items rolled out today are ho-hum at best. is the perfect example: as far as I can tell, it’s just a customizable portal page. We had those in 1998 and they sucked then. Seven years later, they haven’t gotten any better.

However, there are a few grace notes scattered around the various presentations that indicate there may be some pieces of “Live” worth keeping an eye on. One example is “Microsoft Mojo” (yes, I swear, that’s the name they use for it): a new set of collaboration tools for Office users, to be delivered via Office Live. What little I have seen of Mojo makes it look like they have taken some of the key ideas of the before-its-time Groove Networks platform and run with them; for example, they apparently demo-ed two users collaborating simultaneously on an Excel document online. Groove had impressive technology, but their Achilles heel was always their requirement that you do all your collaboration within their Groove client software. If you took the collaborative goodness of Groove and rolled it into Office, you’d have something very interesting — imagine Office injected with some of the DNA of SubEthaEdit and you can see the possibilities.

(Note: it should probably not surprise anyone to see Office getting Groovy now that Ray Ozzie, founder of Groove, is Microsoft’s new CTO.)

Another idea that seems solid to me is the OneCare Live concept. Home and small business users of Windows have found themselves suffering more and more over the years as the accreting complexity of the system required them to become part-time sysadmins, which was no fun. Services like Fog Creek Copilot have already shown how you can tie systems together to allow remote experts to take this burden off a user. Given that Microsoft has tied its destiny to the “fat client” approach, offering its own institutionalized services to take the burden of routine maintenance off of these users and onto itself makes a lot of sense.

So it’s a mixed bag. What does that mean for the future of “Live”? The best place to look for analogies is probably the launch in 2000 of the Last Big Thing from Microsoft: .NET. The “Live” launch actually reminds me a lot of that. When .NET was first revealed, Microsoft went crazy trying to shove everything they did under the .NET umbrella. Windows became Windows.NET. Office became Office.NET. Their various server packages became .NET Servers. I imagined them frantically renaming all the streets in Redmond — “Main Street.NET” — to fit the pattern.

The problem was that the vast majority of these changes were purely cosmetic. Windows, Office, the servers, etc. weren’t being radically rewritten; they were just being rebranded. When you cut through the .NET hype, the actual technical accomplishments you found were more modest: a new runtime environment and API for building Windows applications, a new language (C#) hosted in that environment, and a few other things. The rest was hot air, which Joel Spolsky noted at the time.

Did this mean that .NET was a failure, or an unimportant development? Not at all. The .NET environment proved to be a solid one for developing apps; it moved Microsoft into a place where they could compete credibly with Sun’s Java platform. C# is by all accounts a clean and pleasant-to-code-in language. .NET provided Microsoft developers with real benefits that they are only beginning to exploit the full potential of.

But .NET was not the Year Zero event that it was made out to be at launch. It was not a revolution for Microsoft; it was an evolution — and by overhyping it, they confused their customers, who couldn’t tell what was real and what was puffery in .NET. Eventually MS dropped the .NET hype, the products that had no real connection to .NET quietly went back to their old names (notice how the upcoming new version of Windows is not “Windows.NET Vista”), and .NET found its place in the market.

I imagine we’ll see something similar happen with “Live”: it’ll be another evolution in the Microsoft platform. The bits that are inspired will put down roots, the bits that aren’t, won’t. And eventually Microsoft will have to sharpen its definition of what “Live” is and pare back the bajillion other projects that are now confusing the brand.

Will that be enough for the ailing giant to fend off the assault from Google? Who knows. As it stands, “Live” seems like less of a Great Leap Forward and more of a baby step. Every journey, though, has to start somewhere.

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