On November 1, 2005, Microsoft announced that it would release a set of services beginning in 2006 under the Windows Live brand. For the most part, the Windows Live services match up with previous projects from MSN, which had been pulled into the Windows division at Microsoft during a late 2005 reorganization. As a long-time fan of MSN--see my exhaustive showcase, MSN: The Inside Story, for details--this reorg gave me mixed feelings. On the one hand, I felt that the somnolent Windows group could use the injection of energy, excitement, and innovation that MSN would no doubt provide. But on the other hand, I was fearful that the enormous Windows division would simply destroy MSN and the many benefits of MSN's rapid release mantra.
Two months later, it's not clear how this combination of Windows and MSN will turn out. However, I am reasonably confident that the numerous Windows Live services that Microsoft plans to ship in the weeks and months ahead will be interesting and compelling for a wide range of consumers. And it's important to note that the Windows Live services are indeed aimed at consumers, and not businesses. This stands in sharp contrast with the Office Live services (see my showcase, Office Live Preview), which are aimed at small businesses, and Xbox Live, which is aimed at gamers.
In this article, I'll examine the genesis of Windows Live, and take a look at how Microsoft plans to capitalize on the integration of Windows with various Web-based services and products. Then, I'll briefly examine each of the Windows Live services that the company plans to ship this year, saving full reviews of each service for their eventual ship dates.
The move from MSN to Windows Live
"Windows Live came about when we began reexamining Windows," Adam Sohn, Microsoft Director of Global Sales and Marketing PR, told me during a recent briefing. "We have a set of experiences in Windows, and platform capabilities there that nicely position it to take advantages of services. We had a bunch of great Windows experiences and we had a bunch of great online and mobile experiences but they were siloed."
Microsoft executives such as Bill Gates, David Cole, Ray Ozzie, Steve Ballmer, and Jim Allchin determined how to bring the company's Windows, online, and mobile experiences together in ways that were seamless but didn't run into any of the debatable problems presented by previous integration strategies around Internet Explorer (IE) and Windows Media Player (WMP). "All these guys, they get it," Sohn told me.
At the time Windows Live was first conceived in early 2005, MSN was shipping innovative products and services at a rapid clip, and industry forces like broadband penetration and the explosion of mobile devices were combining to create a compelling case for an integrated software-driven future. "You have an opportunity to rethink a lot of what goes in the operating system both at the platform and experiences levels as we march towards [Windows] Vista," Sohn said. "So even though this is just the beginning of Windows Live, understanding what it is that we really needed to do was the culmination of phase one."
While MSN can rightly be credited for its innovative work, it wasn't very consistent. For example, when you're using Windows, it's always clear that you're using Windows. But MSN applications and services each presented their own user experience, each of which could differ from the Windows user experience. "Everything was different, and it made for an unnatural, non-seamless, unintuitive experience," Sohn told me. "So we took a step back and did more than a year of research, and we talked to thousands of consumers around the world. We asked what the Internet meant to them, what did Windows mean to them, and what did MSN mean to them. What are the things you're trying to do? What does technology mean to you? The feedback we got was just stunning. Really, what they said was, bring it together. Take away the pain of using it, and take away the risk of using it. Ultimately, we were told that people get the Internet and have in some ways outgrown it. It's still a little bit confusing and is perceived to be unsafe, and in some cases is actually unsafe. They wanted someone to help them put it all together and help them get to the stuff they care about."
Windows Live, essentially, is an effort to unify that work. And really, when you think about it, MSN has really been building Windows experiences, even though many of those experiences were browser based. So when you think about the new Windows Live branding, it does makes some sense, though I continue to have fears that the Windows division will eventually crush the good parts of MSN.
Sohn doesn't see it that way. "This is a way to extend the Windows user experience," he said. "There are already a couple of places where you see glimmers of what is possible. The first place we did it is desktop search. And that was a very simple choice: We decided to do deep Windows shell integration and the other guys [Google] chose not to. We used publicly documented APIs, just like any other application would, but the other guys [Google] decided to put everything inside a browser window and mix [search] results [between Web and file search]. We did pretty well with that."
Sohn also pointed to Windows OneCare Live and Windows Live Security Center as two other examples of this type of integration work. His favorite example, however, is Windows Live Messenger, the successor to MSN Messenger, which provides a peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing service that is deeply integrated with the Windows shell (see below). "Why shouldn't it be part of Windows?" he asked, noting that folder sharing from within Messenger is cool, but allowing it from within Windows makes it truly seamless. And as with MSN's Desktop Search work, the Windows Live Messenger Folder Sharing feature utilizes public programming interfaces. The message is clear: Any third party developer could create these kinds of solutions, but Microsoft is showing the way.
Bringing it all together: A Windows Live deep dive
At a conceptual level, Windows Live consists of a number of layers, most of which build on top of each other. At the bottom of this structure is a set of foundational technologies, such as billing, identity, and storage, that cut across everything else Microsoft is doing with Windows Live. Microsoft Points, the micropayment system that Microsoft first developed for the Xbox 360 version of Xbox Live is also found at this level. Sohn says that Microsoft Points could easily end up in "lots of other places," most of which will presumably be part of Windows Live.
Above the foundational technologies are three chunks, the Information Network, the People Network, and the Business Network. Sohn told me that these three networks were described a bit differently in November when Bill Gates first discussed Windows Live (they were described as the Search Network, the Ad Network, and the Communications Network during that event, but offer the same services). The Information Network including MSN Search, the MSN mapping services and even the Gadgets infrastructure that will allow for mini-applications that work in both Windows Vista's Sidebar and on the Live.com Web portal.
"You can think of Search as the engine that powers the Information Network," Sohn told me. "In the next 6-to-12 months, you'll see new Search experiences, and you'll see Search continue to get woven through all of the experiences in the network, because it just makes sense to have it at your fingertips everywhere you go. You saw it in the last version of [MSN] Messenger, where we had shared search."
The People Network includes the integrated contacts management system that was originally created by MSN. And of course the Business Network is dominated by a new ad engine called Ad Center. "Windows Live is an advertising funded service, so we have this thing called Ad Center that we're building that will be a hub through which advertisers interact with us, and we'll help them reach the audiences they care about," Sohn added.
On top of these three networks are the actual experiences that are provided by Windows Live. I briefly describe each of these experiences below, but consider Windows Live Messenger as a typical example. The Messenger contacts list pulls heavily from the People Network, while the ads its displays are typically pulled from the Business Network. The word wheel effect you get when you filter the viewable contacts list by typing in the Find contacts box? That's straight from the Information Network, using MSN Search technology. For now, all of the experiences you'll see through Windows Live will come from Microsoft, of course. But the company intends to open it up to third parties as well.
Finally, at the topmost level and in many ways surrounding all the other components is what Sohn calls the protection fabric. "Some of the [Windows Live] experiences, maybe, are protection experiences, like Parental Controls, Windows OneCare Live, or Live.com, sort of, as well," he said. "Around that you have the fabric. In [Windows Live] Mail, if we see a phish, we disable everything so you can't hurt yourself. That to me is just fabric. Detect and protect. We're always looking out for you, always making it better, always making it safe. I think that services like Automatic Updates for Windows will, over time, will be seen as part of that same fabric."
"The theme we always talk about is this idea of bringing it all together," he told me. "That's the way we think of Windows Live."
But what about MSN?
If you look over the list of Windows Live services described in the next section, you'll notice that it doesn't completely encompass all of the products and services that MSN current offers. So what happens to such things as the MSN.com portal, the MSN dial-up service, and MSN Premium?
For fans of MSN.com, I've got good news. Microsoft will proceed with what it calls a dual portal strategy, and will offer both MSN.com and Live.com (the Windows Live portal), each of which is unique from the other. "MSN.com and the [MSN content] channels don't go away," Sohn said. "We're actually going to up our investment in the content business."
The reason for this is that there are two to three types of people when it comes to consuming online content. The first group is after a programmed content experience, sites that provide specific types of content and decide which content to provide. These are things people care about, like sports, finance, or cars. "We've got a ton of people who care deeply about their connection to [the MSN] network, which means we have an opportunity to connect those people to advertisers," Sohn told me. "That's a $2 billion business for us. There are still a lot of people who like [to get content] that way [online]."
The second group consists of people who want a fully customized experience, utilizing content from all over the Web. The third group, which is in the middle of the other two, sometimes wants content the first way, but sometimes wants it the second way. "Some people jump back and forth between the two camps," Sohn added. "Sometimes they want to go to MSN and see what's going on at the movies and watch some trailers. It's easy to do that at MSN, and they've pulled that together. So we invest heavily in MSN, and we invest heavily in Windows Live, and what happens is we end up with one bigger network. And because we're giving everybody what they want, or at least giving more people something to which they can connect more deeply with, what happens is that those people become more engaged with our network. That makes them very attractive to advertisers and really helps grow the network."
As for the other MSN products and services, the news is mixed. The MSN dial-up client will remain in place as long as it makes sense for Microsoft to be in that business, Sohn told me. But it's unlikely that Microsoft will ever update MSN Premium again. Instead, the customization work that was previously done with the MSN client is being moved into Web-based Windows Live products and services that can be updated so much more quickly.
"Windows Live gives us the opportunity to create Web-only experiences that really push the edge in terms of smart client experiences using technologies like AJAX and RSS, and making sure we use the power of the client," Sohn explained. "And Windows Vista gives us some awesome opportunities with the new application model behind WinFX. There's this idea that you can do one-click installs, and you're running Web applications that are [just as rich as] client apps, and download to secure memory and execute in a way that won't hurt you."
"We also have the opportunity to experiment with smart clients, whether we have a full [PC-based] client or not, or whether we have these hybrid experiences like OneCare where you have a bunch of client code, but you also have a lot of server code. Or Messenger, which obviously is a client application talking to services. Even Windows Mail provides a look at an Outlook Express in the Windows Live world. That's something you'll see as we roll it out. The great thing about Windows Live is that we have a decently blank slate, we have a guiding star in this idea of bringing together people and information safely, and we can execute against that in ways that our customers want. These are generally fast twitch products, even on the client side, and we can ship them quickly. It gives us the opportunity to be really nimble."
Sohn reminded me that the entire MSN team moved intact into the Windows division and that everybody is still working on basically the same products. But now the opportunities are almost endless. "There's tons of crossover," he said. "People who are using MSN.com are going to want access to mail and communications services, and Search. We'll make Windows Live Services available on MSN. Flip that around: We have done a tremendous job over the past ten years of cutting some really nice content deals. We have awesome sports content, awesome automotive stuff, awesome finance stuff, and great entertainment content, both homegrown and the stuff we get elsewhere. For people who want that in their totally customized, automated experience, we think that they should be able to consume MSN content in that metaphor. So there should be all these feeds coming out of MSN for all that content, and it should be available on Windows Live too. That MSN content will become more available across the whole network, and Windows Live services are obviously available to those people that want them."
Though he didn't highlight this point, I'd call out that one of the palpable benefits of Windows Live is that the services are not forced down users' throats via arbitrary inclusion in Windows. That is, the services integrate quite deeply into Windows, but are not included in Windows or required in any way. Customers can opt into them as they want.
Taking stock: A quick look at the Windows Live services
When Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie introduced Windows Live in November 2005, I was struck by the sheer number of services the company planned. In this section, I'll enumerate through each of the services we now know about, though I'll hold off on full reviews for future articles.
Live.com Web portal
The Windows Live Web portal, found at Live.com, is designed to be your one-stop home page on the Web, complete with a simple (read: Google-like) and yet fully customizable user interface. By default, the portal features a sidebar and four simple sections, Welcome, Mail, Add Content, and Weather Forecasts. You can add content (typically RSS feeds) by navigating through the directory of choices in the sidebar, or by searching for content in the search box. Once you begin adding content to your customized home page, you can then customize the look of the page by dragging and dropping content sections. You can also customize the layout of the page by choosing from 1 to 4 columns, color schemes, and language settings. And here's a shocker: This all works in Firefox as well as it does in Internet Explorer (IE).
Windows Live Domains
Essentially a wrapper around Hotmail with custom domain names (such as firstname.lastname@example.org instead of email@example.com), Windows Live Domain lets you configure up to 40 email accounts, each with 250 MB of storage space, per domain. The email accounts are functionally equivalent to Hotmail accounts, with junk email filtering, virus scanning, and a familiar Web mail interface. In order to start a Windows Live Domains account, however, you must already own a domain name: Microsoft isn't providing domain name registration services (at least not yet).
Windows Live Expo
Windows Live Expo is an online community where users can buy, sell, or advertise virtually anything, including cars, jobs, open houses, and so on. It's also a social networking site that provides a place for people to meet and interact with people. What makes Expo interesting is that it's tailored to your physical location. So by default, you'll see listings that are geographically close to where you live, though of course you can also interact with others from around the country or in other geographic areas. You can choose to interact only with people you trust--such as those people who are on your contacts list--or with anyone. It's your choice. Codenamed Fremont, Windows Live Expo has been in live testing within Microsoft for several months, and it's proven to be a bit hit with employees.
Windows Live Favorites
Assuming you use Internet Explorer (IE) or MSN Explorer, this free service will allow you to access your Favorites list from any location, assuming you're online. Once you've got your Favorites stored in Microsoft's central servers, you can manage them through Windows Live Favorites, add new Favorites, and do a bit of manual synchronization by exporting Windows Live Favorites back to one or more PCs. This is a marginally useful service (again, assuming you use IE), I suppose, especially for those who are about to backup a system before reinstalling Windows, or for those who use one or more PCs.
Windows Live Local
While Google has gotten a lot of press for its Google Earth service, Microsoft's Windows Live Local (formerly Virtual Earth) is far more visually impressive, with three dimensional birds-eye views of many geographic locations, including, ominously, my house (it's out of date, however: We put up a fence around the entire property over two years ago). You can use Windows Live Local to find locations, get driving directions, see maps as well as satellite imagery, and search online yellow page directories. It's an amazing combination of features that provides the same services as Yahoo Maps or Google Earth, but with that bit of extra visual flair. Most impressive.
Windows Live Mail
Back in October, I wrote a preview of what was then called MSN Mail Beta, but will now be branded as Windows Live Mail. Essentially an AJAX-based follow-up to Hotmail, Windows Live Mail is one of the most impressive Web-based email clients I've yet seen, head and shoulders above Google's GMail and similar to (but not as attractive as) the Yahoo Mail Beta (Figure) that's currently in testing. The idea behind Windows Live Mail is simple: Take advantage of the latest Web technologies to provide a Web-based email client that offers much of the same functionality that people expect from true client-side applications such as Outlook Express and Outlook. And indeed, Windows Live Mail supports such client features as drag-and-drop, right-click, and message previewing, while providing 2 GB of storage space. Windows Live Mail will eventually replace Microsoft's popular Hotmail service.
Windows Live Messenger
The successor to MSN Messenger, Windows Live Messenger is more colorful and configurable, and offers intriguing Windows integration features like Folder Sharing, which establishes peer-to-peer connections between you and your contacts so that you can share files over the Internet. Windows Live Messenger will also provide a subscription-based service for calling local, long distance, and international mobile and land-line telephone numbers, and a free service for PC-to-PC phone calls.
Windows Live Mobile Search
For users with Web-enabled mobile devices such as cell phones, you can now use the best features from MSN Search on the go. Working largely with the "Near Me" functionality of MSN Search, Windows Live Mobile Search will help you find restaurants, movies, and other nearby events and locations, all through a Web site that is formulated for the small screens found on mobile devices.
Windows Live Safety Center
Windows Live Safety Center is a free online service that will scan your PC for malware, alert you to any problems, and then remove them for you. Though it's free, it's manually initiated, so you can't use this service to replace automatic anti-malware systems like Norton Internet Security or ZoneAlarm Security Suite. That said, it's a nice service, especially if you're nervous that something bad happened. One curious note: The Windows Live Safety Center requires a small client download, the Windows Live Safety Center Scanner. Once you've got that, you're good to go: Windows Live Safety Center will scan for viruses, clean up your disk, defragment your disk, scan open ports, and provide a nice rundown of your system's health status.
Windows OneCare Live
Where Windows Live Safety Center is free but manual, Windows OneCare Live will be a paid subscription service, but will work automatically and keep itself (and your system) up-to-date from a security perspective. Essentially a Microsoft alternative to products like ZoneAlarm Security Suite, Windows OneCare Live provides a two-way firewall, antivirus and anti-spyware services, and a front-end for such things as performance tuning and backup and restore. And like similar products, OneCare is always running in the background, alerting you to new threats and ensuring that you have the latest security software installed. I've been using Windows OneCare Live beta on my desktop system for several months now, and aside from the annoyance of some of its notifications (it seems like to keep telling me that "Windows OneCare Live is up to date" for some reason), it appears to work well.
While many people--myself included--have accurately questioned Microsoft's commitment to security over the past several years, many of the Windows Live services are whole-heartedly dedicated to security, and most of the ones that aren't are still designed to interwork with Microsoft's various security initiatives. But the most impressive thing about Windows Live is that it represents a serious commitment to the individual, with a suite of interesting services that most consumers should find quite appealing. It's impossible to look at the whole of Windows Live and not be impressed, even though it's likely that most people will end up interacting only with a subset of the offered services. In upcoming weeks, I'll try to more closely examine each of these products and services in separate reviews. But for now, I'm happy to see that Microsoft can innovate and integrate without artificially bundling these products directly into the Windows. That's progress, no matter how you slice it.