Back in November, Microsoft announced (with the usual fanfare and a Bill Gates-led dog and pony show) two new Web sites, Windows Live and Microsoft Office Live. Only the company didn't call them Web sites. No, the Live properties are "new Internet-based software services" that will "deliver rich and seamless experiences to individuals and small businesses."
Couple this announcement with the recently-leaked memo from Ray Ozzie about how Microsoft has to get into advertising-supported services in a big way to survive in a time of competition from nimble Internet competitors (Google being the one that people at Microsoft don't like to talk about), and you might draw the obvious conclusion that these sites, er, services are Microsoft's first steps at creating online versions of their Windows and Office products.
You'd be wrong.
You can go out and play with Windows Live right now if you want to. What you'll find is not some Internet-based Windows desktop, but a pretty basic Web portal. Sure, the Microsoft developers are using AJAX to make it more responsive and to let you drag things around with a mouse, and they even figured out how to make it work in Firefox after a while, but overall it's just a page that you can display your own choice of content on: RSS feeds, weather, horoscopes, search results, stock quotes, e-mail.
This is not even remotely revolutionary. They have published an API for this, so developers can design "gadgets" that fit into the live.com framework, but that's still not going to make it a Web version of Windows. Nope, this is the reuse of the Windows franchise in another context, an attempt to use a trusted brand name to get you to use Microsoft's home page instead of one from Some Other Software Company.
Digging a bit further you'll find Windows Live Ideas, where Microsoft has rebranded a whole bunch of disparate Web offerings with the Live moniker. You can get a new Web mail client, portable browser favorites, online virus checking, and a few other odds and ends -- but the links will lead you off in all different directions. This is just a switchboard page that pulls together efforts from all over the company and gives them a single name. The pieces don't seem to fit in the same puzzle, apart from the branding.
There's even less to Office Live. In fact, right now there's nothing but a beta application, despite the launch promise of "nearly continuous delivery of new live services and features." But they have announced what Office Live will be: a place for Web hosting, free e-mail accounts, domain hosting, and online applications like project management, sales management, and customer management. It's definitely not versions of the Office applications running in your browser.
Somehow I doubt that the established companies in this space (like Salesforce.com) are really quaking in their boots, especially given that this isn't Microsoft's first foray into attempting to host small businesses online. To a large extent this is just rebranding existing offerings that haven't done especially well.
Meanwhile innovative companies like Writely are proving that you can in fact build functional Office applications that run perfectly well in a Web browser. But that doesn't seem to be what Microsoft has in mind.
In fact, it's a bit tough to tell just what Microsoft does have in mind. The announcement was certainly high-profile enough, but the actual Live sites don't seem to be getting nearly the resources that it's expending on things like Windows Vista or Office 12.
It's worth noting, I think, just how little news there actually is here. Microsoft has been dabbling in "software as a service" since Office 2000 was released and there was some noise about hosting Office in your browser as a major alternative to installing it on your desktop. That never took off, and the company eventually stopped talking about it. Then there was Hailstorm, which was going to be the promised land of Microsoft owning all the backend services, but the market didn't want to be owned. Now all the expertise in browser-based services in the company has migrated to this new effort, added a bit of AJAX sugar, and is waiting to see if this is the recipe the market has been looking for. Sometimes the Microsoft master plan simply consists of placing a whole lot of bets on the off chance that one of them will pay off.
Mike Gunderloy is the Senior Technology Partner for Adaptive Strategy, a Washington State consulting firm. You can read more of Mike's work at his Larkware Web site, or contact him at MikeG1@larkfarm.com.