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Windows Live hits the toddler stage

In an interview, Windows Live exec Chris Jones talks about what the 2-year-old is up to and comments on another youngster--Apple's iPhone.

Like most other 2-year-olds, Windows Live is walking on its own but is still a bit wobbly.

After months spent mastering the basics, though, the service is starting to move independently of its parent--MSN--and to carve out its own identity. In recent months, Microsoft has taken the beta tag off Windows Live Hotmail, added the Windows Live Photo Gallery and SkyDrive services, and completed mobile versions of Live Search and other services.

"I really feel great about where we are with the product and the release, but also overall with the online services business," said Chris Jones, corporate vice president for Windows Live. "I think that there is obviously more for us to do and more opportunity, but that's what makes it fun."

In an interview, Jones talked about how things are going with the effort. He also discussed where he thinks Windows Live fits into the social-networking world, considered the company's struggles in search, and gave praise to the iPhone.

Q: Microsoft first talked about Windows Live back in 2005. At the time, Microsoft had Hotmail, Spaces, and MSN Messenger as its three main services. Those are still the big three for the company. How much has really changed?
Jones: I think what you're seeing is really the delivery of the vision that we talked about a couple of years ago, where with Windows Live our goal is to build a service that helps you get to the information you care about, and communicate and share with the people you care about, and really on the devices that you care about.

We've delivered a rich set of Windows client software that lets you connect to those services, and we've delivered software on your mobile phone, particularly on Windows Mobile, but also browser-based ways on your mobile phone to get to those services.

Then the other thing we've done is we've evolved the services. With Spaces you can now go beyond just blogging to sharing your photos and sharing your files and sharing events. With Mail we've gone beyond just the standard HTML view to AJAX and rich mail, rich calendaring, really improved contacts, and then synchronization across your devices.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer talked earlier this year about being ready to have a conversation later this year with developers about some of those things. Is that still going to happen this year?
Jones: I think some of those conversations have been happening, and I think that that's one where you'll just continue to see us evolve and make progress. A good example of that is the contact interchange work that we just did with Bebo, where you can use the Windows Live platform and that platform capability to connect between the Bebo social network and the Windows Live network.

What kinds of new services would you like to see under the Windows Live banner?
Jones: I think that what we're really focused on is actually making the experiences easier and more seamless for people. Let's take something like photos. People have a lot of photos in their digital camera, but fewer of those people take their photos to their PC, and still fewer of those people share them on a Web site; they mostly e-mail them around.

What we're really focused on is actually making the experiences easier and more seamless for people.

So, what you should expect us to do is just continue to make it easier for people to take their memories and share them with others.

We did a great job, I think, with photos in this release of Windows Live. I think movies would be a natural thing for us to think about doing, make it easy for people to create and share their personal movies with other folks.

Another good example would be really thinking about calendar sharing, where today we have a great calendaring service, but the ability for you to actually share that, have a shared calendar with a set of people that you care about, that's possible today, but it's quite hard, and it's a problem that we could actually solve for people.

The last thing I'll say is I think that what you've seen us do in this release of Windows Live is really have an approach where we allow you to bring the services you care about into the experience, or publish out to those services. So, in this release we publish to Flickr and we publish to Windows Live Spaces from the Photo Gallery. You might imagine that there will be other photo sites that people are interested in publishing to, and those are the kinds of capabilities we'll look at.

That kind of dovetails into one of the other things I was going to ask. Where is it important for Windows Live to plug into Internet services from other companies?
Jones: I think you'll see us, at least in Windows Live, focus on helping customers in two areas. One is getting your information from anywhere, and that means that regardless of the service your information is stored on, we want to help you get to that information.

A good example of that would be today in e-mail we're letting you bring together your POP accounts, and aggregate those things into Hotmail. It would be a nice thing for you to be able to do with photos and with files so that you can get to all that information from one place. That's a place where bringing in other Internet services would really help and allow customers to say, "Hey, I have my photos stored in this other place, but I really want to be able to view them and send them around using Windows Live."

Another example is communicating and sharing with people where I think that what we're finding at least is people are on lots of different social networks, and they're using lots of different ways to communicate. At the same time, they probably have one contact list--it's inconvenient to have two--so a notion where it's easy for you to communicate with different people, regardless of the network they're on.

If you think about the evolution that e-mail went through where it used to be you could only communicate with people on your e-mail server, and then it was only people from your service provider, and then it became e-mail addresses are universal--I think we'll see that same trend with a lot of the social-networking work, where for basic communication you'll just be able to find people and send it to them, and you'll want to do that, regardless of the network they're on.

What is your view of where Windows Live fits into the social-networking world? Have you guys kind of resigned yourself to the fact that Windows Live isn't in and of itself going to be a social network?
Jones: The thing I think about with social networking is it means a lot of things to a lot of people. Is Flickr a social-networking site? I think it is. It's a way for people to find each other and share things and communicate. It's a very focused one on photo sharing. Is YouTube a social-networking site? Sort of.

I do think over time IM networks are going to interoperate. It's just challenging from a business perspective for everybody to agree to do that right now.

So, if the definition of social-networking site is a way to discover other people, then we do think Windows Live is a great way to do that today, and, in fact, Messenger is in particular a service where it's super easy to discover other people. It turns out to be very presence-oriented.

One thing you do in your personal life is manage all your information, and manage your life. We think Windows Live is going to do a great job at that.

A second thing you do in your personal life is just stay in touch with people. You want to send someone a Christmas card, you want to know when they've changed their job, but they're not really a friend of yours, they're just on your contact list. I think Windows Live is going to do a great job at that, and already has with the features that we've added in this release.

A third thing you want to do is do sharing and really intimate communication with your friends and your family and these small groups of people, and that's an area where I think that nobody has really done, just share with your family or just share with your friends well, and I think that's an area for us to explore.

There was a presentation by one of the folks at Microsoft at Georgia Tech that talked a little bit about the future of Messenger. Can you talk a little bit about that? It mentioned some things like interoperability with AOL and Google as being in the works.
Jones: I think that the person works on my team, and they were quoted out of context. We obviously have some work that we're working on with Messenger in terms of the platform and the direction that we're headed, but the things that were quoted and said, they aren't on our roadmap in any kind of public way.

Where are things as far as interoperability with some of the other folks?
Jones: We have an agreement with Yahoo on interop, and that's about the extent of what we've done. I can't discuss things on other networks, but certainly we've had conversations with other folks. And the work that we've done on our contact interchange is just an example of the kinds of things that we'll expect to do in the future.

I do think over time IM networks are going to interoperate. It's just challenging from a business perspective for everybody to agree to do that right now.

When it comes to the phone, you have kind of the baseline WAP support; you have the Windows Mobile experience; you announced the deal with Nokia so that there will be an enhanced experience on Nokia devices. What do you make of the iPhone?
Jones: Well, I think with the iPhone that Apple just did a super job. It's a very, very nice device. I think that one of the neat things that we have an opportunity to do in our experience with Windows Mobile, and now in this partnership with Nokia, is deliver to a huge broad range of phones the capability to get real-time push access to your services like mail, like calendar and contacts, and instant messaging on those phones. But I think that the iPhone itself has really done a very nice job in the class of devices.

Given that it has full Safari, maybe Safari support moves up a little higher in terms of how you support it?
Jones: Right. We're definitely sort of assessing what we should do on phones in general, because there's lots and lots of different browsers out there. The iPhone has certainly sold quite well, but in the grand scheme of all phones out there with browsers, it's a very small percentage of a phone with a browser.

So, the interesting question for us is, how do we author an experience for phones where you can get to it on any data phone, and then it just looks better as your screen gets bigger, which is what happens on the iPhone.

Where would you say things are as far as Firefox support, and is it where you want it to be?
Jones: I think our Firefox support is quite good. Certainly we work to make sure that we support the right set of standard Web experiences, and as Firefox supports those, and as IE supports those, we just go and make it work on those browsers.

Historically, mail and instant messaging have been the high volume products, but not necessarily extremely profitable. How have they evolved revenue-generating products for Microsoft?
Jones: I don't know if we break out our Hotmail and instant-messaging work, but what I'd say generally is the thing we're really focused on is having people love the work we do and love the services we work on. In general, people who are mail users and Messenger users are also very likely to be MSN users, and they're likely to use Live Search.

We're definitely sort of assessing what we should do on phones in general, because there's lots and lots of different browsers out there.

I think that for us we don't focus purely on the economics; we focus on first delivering a great customer experience, and then we think that that leads to opportunities for economics, either directly or indirectly, across our network.

So, the direct economics for things like mail and instant messaging haven't really changed with the shift from the MSN product to Windows Live?
Jones: No, the direct economics have not changed.

What are the big priorities going forward?
Jones: Well, one thing is just continuing to do a better job of helping people bring it all together. In the area of photos we've started, and in the area of files we have a cloud-based solution, but you don't really have a SkyDrive icon on your Windows desktop where you can just drag and drop to upload files to your SkyDrive.

So, one thing that you'll see us do is just go photos, files, and look at how do we bring it together the same way--calendaring--how do we bring it together the same way we brought mail together.

A second direction you're going to see us head is just really doing more between Windows and Windows Live to have the experience of running the product together be very seamless, and just take advantage of the best that both have to offer.

One of the things I'd seen demoed a few years ago, a year and a half ago, and I haven't really seen much since, was this notion that Microsoft could be sort of a meta social network, that you'd be able to check in on what's going on, on all your social networks. Is that still something you guys are pursuing? Where is that?
Jones: That's something that directionally is certainly an interesting place for us to head. We don't have any announced plans in that area, but as part of our vision, it's natural for us to think about adding something like that.

So, it's an area of active work, but nothing to announce?
Jones: It's an area of active thinking. I'll say it would be consistent with our strategy and approach to do that.

A year from now when we're chatting about things, what types of things would you like to be looking at and what would be your measures that this has gone well?
Jones: The first thing I'd look for is what's the feedback, how many people are using it, how many people like what they've seen, are they happy with the performance, are they happy with the quality, because I think our success is measured by our customers every release of every product we do. And particularly in the world of services where it's easy for people to try out new things, that customer loyalty and trust is important.

The second thing I'd expect is that we're really making significant progress on the next release of Windows Live. A year from now, we should have made significant progress on what's next. It should be along the lines of addressing the issues I talked about: How do we get better at delivering a complete experience with Windows. How do we help people bring it all together and manage it online? How do we let people connect across services and communicate and stay in touch? If we've done those things, I think I'll feel quite good.

Then the last thing I'll say is have we enabled people to do it all easily, simply, and in a way that makes them look beautiful and professional? How do we make everybody who's got a digital camera a publisher of beautiful photo albums? How do we make our customers look great?

You talked about being really pleased with where things are across the business. Does that extend to search? I mean, you guys have lost market share in search. The numbers don't seem to be going in the right direction.
Jones: I think the thing for me is I just look at where the product is, and I think for me product is a leading indicator of where we're going to end up in the marketplace. The search product is a great product. We've made a tremendous amount of change in a year.

Do we have a challenge to increase usage relative to the product capability? Yes. And that's a challenge that I think we've demonstrated over the past a capability to take on. We're a company that understands how to be No. 2 or No. 3 in an area, and take a better product and come out to be No. 2 or No. 1. I think with search what you're seeing us put forward is a product that's ready, and now we'll just go out and have the conversation with customers and get the usage up.