Why the death of Windows Live may save Microsoft

Windows Live DeadAlthough technologically capable, the Windows Live brand has come to represent all that is wrong with Microsoft’s sprawling corporate ethos: A name that was supposed to unify an entire set of disparate products instead confused and annoyed users to its own detriment. Now that the grand experiment in branding and technology is finally coming to an end, perhaps Redmond can learn from its mistakes.

In a blog post earlier this month Microsoft’s President of Windows, Steven Sinofsky, explained that although Windows Live products are some of the most popular in the world — Hotmail, for instance, is the world’s #1 web email service, Messenger is the leading instant messaging application, and SkyDrive, Microsoft’s online file storage software, maintains over 170 million active users — the products simply did not live up to the hopes of Microsoft’s development and marketing teams. In fact, it seems to us that some of these applications thrived in defiance of Microsoft’s misguided attempts to dump all of its products into a single brand.

In Sinofsky’s words, Live “did not meet our expectations of a truly connected experience.  Windows Live services and apps were built on versions of Windows that were simply not designed to be connected to a cloud service for anything other than updates, and as a result, they felt “bolted on” to the experience.” He continued to elaborate on the inherent frustrations of the branding, explaining that “The names we used to describe our products added to that complexity: we used “Windows Live” to refer to software for your PC (Windows Live Essentials), a suite of web-based services (Hotmail, SkyDrive, and Messenger), your account relationship with Microsoft (Windows Live ID), and a host of other offers.” Anyone who has ever had to navigate the labyrinthine process of signing in to a Microsoft service will surely appreciate this acknowledgment from the head of Windows — it’s like Fidel Castro admitting that communism may not have been the best idea. 

The birth of Live

But the bones of Windows Live were healthy ones. The name originated with the hugely popular Xbox Live network, a sophisticated and game-changing (pun intended) service that continues to let gamers play each other over a broadband connection, unlock performance achievements, and download exclusive content. As a brand, it was a homerun: It truly was “live” in that you could literally speak to your opponent in real time as you delivered that fatal headshot in Halo. And the technology that backed it up was sound, offering few outages and generally great service.

It was when Microsoft sought to capitalize on Xbox Live’s success that the aura began to fade. According to Randall Stross of The New York Times, the new branding decision was announced by Bill Gates at a news briefing in 2005, with the ambition to “make Windows, Office and Xbox further come alive for our customers at work, home and play.” The name has since been added to a throng of core Windows components, such as Windows Live Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Mail, Messenger, Messenger Companion (??), Family Safety, and the ahead-of-its-time Windows Live Mesh. But the name also belongs to online services, where it at least initially made more sense: Windows Live SkyDrive, Hotmail, ID, Calendar, Contacts — in fact it seemed at one time that every product from the smallest incremental update to the largest development-heavy innovation on which the company’s success hinged, had the word “live” tacked on, further muddying the already turbid waters. For a full list of Live products, we’ll refer you to the Wiki page, but be forewarned — it’s like trying to uncover a hidden code in plain English: All the words are there, but they make little sense.

Ultimately, Microsoft is choosing to streamline its services approach just as it has simplified its user interface for the highly anticipated next iteration of Windows. Gone will be multiple account sign-ins — a single Microsoft Account will work across all the company’s online products, including Xbox. And taking a page from Apple, a Microsoft Account will also automatically enroll you in a bevy of cloud-based services, such as Calendar, Contact List, Mail, and thankfully, storage, which will keep the SkyDrive nomenclature.

Although some pundits have knocked Windows 8 for its outwardly simplified approach to user interface, we think it’s time Microsoft learned from the errors of its past: Simple isn’t a bad thing, especially when it comes to services that users need and love. Windows 8 isn’t getting rid of anything, it’s just going to do a better job of implementing the things we use the most. And it may give Microsoft the kick it needs to remain competitive in a world of devices with only one button. Microsoft has always been a company with great developers and groundbreaking products, but it has never really had or needed the marketing unity to make those visions shine like Apple or Google. As long as Redmond’s corporate impulses are kept in check, Windows 8 will be a success, and a step in the right direction. Rest in peace Windows Live, but we won’t miss you.