Windows Live is dead
Seven years ago in this space, I noted the rollout of a big new branding effort from Microsoft, called “Live,” and asked what the hell it was actually about:
[I]t’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…
.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.
(That post ended up getting quoted by Joel Spolsky, which was nice.)
Here we are, seven years later, and all that time Microsoft has been going through the process I predicted they would — trying to figure out what the “Live” brand should actually mean to their customers. Various products bearing the “Live” moniker have come and gone, but the definition of what “Live” itself is never really came into focus.
So it’s not really a big surprise to hear now that Microsoft has given up on it:
With the new version of Windows, many of the Windows Live products and services that had been packaged separately will be installed as a part of the operating system. “There is no ‘separate brand’ to think about or a separate service to install,” Mr. Jones wrote.
Most important, Windows 8 customers will be free to substitute non-Microsoft products and services in place of the re-branded Windows Live successors. “You’re welcome to mix and match them with the software and services you choose,” he says.
“Windows Live” is disappearing.
The whole “Live” story — from muddled conception, to haphazard deployment, to quiet abandonment — has played out in a pattern depressingly similar to other Microsoft efforts of the last ten years. Microsoft has shipped a lot of products over that time, but nothing really seems to tie them all together; there’s no grand vision at the heart of the company’s work anymore, unlike competitors such as Apple and Google. The products they ship range from the excellent (Windows 7, XBox) to the OK-but-not-quite-great (Windows Phone, Bing) to the downright embarrassing (Windows Vista, Microsoft Kin). But try and think of a philosophical through-line that ties all those products together; you can’t. That’s a major, major problem.
Microsoft has (finally) started to unify the interfaces of all these different systems with their Metro design language, which helps unify their identities somewhat, but a visual identity standard is not a product vision. Windows 8, with its shift of focus away from the traditional Windows application towards simpler “Metro-style” applications that feel more like phone and tablet apps than desktop apps, may start to bring some of that vision back, who knows. But I’m skeptical that One True Interface can be devised that works as well on a 4″ phone display as it does on a 22″ desktop monitor (or a 50″ HDTV). We’ll see.
The biggest problem Microsoft has, I think, is that there is nothing they’re working on these days that makes a person like me look at them and think “damn, I wish I was working in their ecosystem.” I used to be a Windows developer; that should make me a primary target to become one again. But I feel very little reason to want to do so. If I were going to branch out of the open-source Web ecosystem, it’d probably be to learn Android, or even Objective-C for iPhone development, before returning to Windows. There’s just nothing exciting about Windows these days — not even the promise of access to a vast audience of potential customers, since the momentum on that score has shifted to the iOS world.
Of course, Microsoft is huge and sitting on an enormous pile of cash, so they could just keep on muddling through for quite a long time. I hope they don’t, though. I hope they get their mojo back. Because we need them, if only to prevent the future from being an Apple/Google duopoly.
UPDATE (July 5): Another “we never figured out what it meant, exactly” Microsoft brand bites the dust — Zune.