How Microsoft can save its Live services

Microsoft's various Live offerings have sometimes been almost as good as they are confusing.

PC World's Preston Gralla recently explored five useful things that Microsoft Live can do for you. I was pleased to see that that what may be Microsoft's most screwed-up program, its online business, is still chugging along in search of salvation. And it seems to be finding some.

Maybe that is a little strong, because Microsoft's various Live offerings have sometimes been almost as good as they are confusing. And since they are totally confusing, that means I have really liked some of what Redmond offers. Preston's story talks about the current winners and I'd encourage you to take a look. I am going to start using them myself--especially the free synchronization.

Microsoft has certainly abused the Live brand since its introduction back in 2005. Many people can tell you about Google's non-search offerings, in part because if you log into your Google account you likely to be presented with a list of them. Go over to www.live.com and you are presented--as you follow the links--with a sometimes-bewildering array of services and features. I usually end up closing my eyes and hoping it will all just go away.

Redmond badly needs to reorganize its online offerings, which it already seems to do with such frequency that all the changes in what it means to be Microsoft "Live" are probably the cause of the confusion. If those of us in the business of knowing what Microsoft is up to can't make sense of the company's services, what's an ordinary user to do?

In this case, follow the above link to Preston's story. Again, just because Microsoft has messed up its marketing and branding, doesn't mean the stuff isn't good.

Google should probably not be too worried, however. The juggernaut that should be a tightly coupled Microsoft desktop, server, and online experience has yet to appear. Maybe Office 14 will do it, though the next Office is still out there a ways, probably to be released once the economy picks up, if I were to hazard a guess.

Because it is more tightly focused than Microsoft, Google looks positively adept at bringing new online products to market. Some are more successful, some less so, but Google has done an excellent job. If Google offers it, it is probably of good quality and the price is right.

Microsoft, on the other hand, feels a duty to integrate its free online services with the Microsoft Office or OS that is already installed on your PC. Microsoft online is supposed to bring some special value to the desktop experience, but has thus far only brought confusion. I believe that will change, but it makes Microsoft's fundamental task both different and more difficult than what Google needs to accomplish to be perceived as a winner.

My sense is that Microsoft ends up spending way too much time parsing how online services will affect sales of desktop applications than it really ought to. Windows Live needs to find ways to bring value to Microsoft customers without regard to how other business units might feel about it. The justification is that if Microsoft can't bring real value to Windows Live, then Google will prevail.

The good news, at least according to Gralla, is that Microsoft just may understand this and is putting out interesting services. Now, if they can just help customers find them.

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David Coursey

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