Microsoft enlists developers for Live push

At the TechEd conference next week, CTO Ray Ozzie is expected to discuss how the software giant's online services initiative will be key for its traditional audience: IT pros and developers.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read
In Microsoft's burgeoning competition with Google, the software company is recruiting its most trusted allies: software developers.

At its TechEd conference next week in Boston, Microsoft is expected to further detail the "Windows Live Platform," the centerpiece of its strategy to foster creation of third-party applications that run in conjunction with its Live-branded Web sites.

During a keynote speech, Chief Technical Officer Ray Ozzie will seek to translate how Microsoft's hosted services relate to developers and IT professionals, according to people familiar with the plans.

Until now, Microsoft's top executives have discussed Live products, such as the company's Windows Live and Office Live, primarily as consumer or small-business services--including instant messenger, Web-based e-mail, Web hosting, and mapping.

But as it builds a full line of services, Microsoft is firmly keeping the developer and IT professional in mind, say company executives.

Next week, Microsoft is expected to launch a Web site, called Windows Live Dev, to offer software developers some technical resources and ideas for using Microsoft services. The site is meant to complement an existing Microsoft Developer Network site launched in March.

Making services useful to developers and IT professionals--Microsoft's traditional audience--is one way Microsoft can differentiate itself from online competitors Google and Yahoo, which typically appeal to consumers, said analysts.

Window Live chart

"If Microsoft is able to pique the attention of developers, developers will be surprised with the collection of services Microsoft already has," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst at the Burton Group. "It's not like they are jumping into the game to draft behind Google."

My API: Have at it
Google's efforts to diversify from its core search business with hosted applications, such as Google Spreadsheets, typically generate a great deal of media coverage and speculation.

The search giant has taken several steps to make its Web properties be programmable, making them a suitable platform for building mash-up applications that combine information from multiple Internet sources.

Google actively courts developers by providing application programming interfaces (APIs) on a dedicated Web site it launched last year. This allows developers or partners to write mash-up applications that tap into--and drive traffic to--Google's Web properties, such as search, Google Maps or its ad-serving service.

Though Google doesn't sell development tools, its engineers have created some, such as a recently released AJAX Web development kit for Java programmers.

These developer-friendly moves should worry Microsoft, said Bernstein Research analyst Charles DiBona. Pundits say if more developers begin designing applications around Web sites, rather than the Windows operating system, Microsoft stands to lose.

"We think that Google poses a threat to Microsoft long-term by offering an alternate platform for application development," DiBona wrote in a research note on Wednesday. "But we also believe that Microsoft recognizes this threat and is investing appropriately in its own operations to counter it."

One significant advantage Microsoft has over Google or Yahoo is an existing, well-tuned outreach program, analysts noted. Also, Windows Live services cover tasks such as network authentication, which appeal to corporate customers rather than individual developers.

Ozzie's 'services disruption'
Although it hasn't been very vocal about it, Microsoft has been steadily filling out the Live picture for developers. It continues to publish APIs for its sites, such as Virtual Earth and Windows Live Messenger, and provide documentation.

Ray Ozzie Ray Ozzie

The company is also promoting the creation of "gadgets," which are mini-applications that can span the Web and Windows Vista.

Earlier this week, Microsoft released a beta version of a software developer's kit for creating gadgets. A third party could write a gadget, for example, which uses RSS to send a specialized news feed onto Live.com and the Sidebar feature of Windows Vista.

To generate ad revenue for itself and potential partners, Microsoft developed ad-serving software called AdCenter, which the company is in the process of rolling out for its MSN Web properties.

Two things have been missing so far from Microsoft, according to Rockford Lhotka, technology evangelist at Magenic, a consulting company that uses Microsoft gear. One is more sophisticated tooling to simplify the job of writing online-services applications. The other is the financial details behind the Live initiative.

Despite the fact that Live has been aimed primarily at individuals and small businesses, Lhotka said he sees potential for mash-ups in businesses, such as embedding a mapping service in a desktop application.

Closer integration with Microsoft's existing Visual Studio development tools would ease creation of online Live applications, Lhotka said. He said he also needed more clarity on the business arrangement between third-party developers and Microsoft.

"I have the same question for Microsoft as I do with Google: If I just use their APIs and wrap them with my branding, how do they make money?" Lhotka said. "If they don't make money, how do I know they will continue the service?"

As Microsoft seeks to generate more revenue from ads and subscription-based services, Ozzie is a key figure within the company.

His "services disruption" memo last fall helped spark a reorganization and accelerated plans to better compete with Google and Yahoo. He has been touting two efforts to build Web standards: Web Clipboard and Simple Share Extensions for RSS and OPML.

"Even if you care nothing about ad (revenue), the next generation of Internet-facing applications can benefit from incorporating services, such as collaboration and presence awareness," said Burton Group's O'Kelly. "That's the sort of thing Microsoft has already done with the enterprise, and they can now make it available on the Web at large."