Windows Live rooted in MSN's past

Microsoft's new Web service, which debuted this week, owes much to MSN and a failed effort called "Hailstorm." Photos: Windows Live and kicking

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
6 min read
Is Windows Live just another name for MSN?

Of the eight or so services that Microsoft showed off Tuesday at the launch of Windows Live, its new Web-based consumer tools, the vast majority are reincarnations of products that the company had either released or tested under the MSN brand.

"A lot of the Windows Live services are things that had already been in development by MSN," Directions on Microsoft analyst Matt Rosoff said.

$100 laptop

The main Live.com Web page is similar to the Start.com page that has been in testing since earlier this year. Windows Live Mail is a long-planned update to Hotmail designed to make the service more like desktop e-mail software. Other existing products, like Microsoft's MSN Spaces and its OneCare security service, are also joining the Windows Live party.

Windows Live is most certainly not an online version of Microsoft's venerable operating system, as the name might imply. But the company insists the move is more than a name change.

Indeed, some of the technology that Microsoft demonstrated goes beyond not only what MSN has done, but also what Google and Yahoo have covered in their personalization efforts.

The most striking examples were ways of tying Windows Live to the desktop. On stage, Microsoft showed how people could share file folders with instant-messaging buddies and use the Live.com page to view not only Web content, but also things like recently opened documents or a corporate SharePoint portal.

Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li said that some of what Microsoft outlined represented an improvement over the personalization features offered by Yahoo and Google's services. But she also chided Microsoft over the Live.com site's complexity.

Windows Live borrows many items from Microsoft's existing MSN services lineup.
Old New
Enables people to aggregate RSS feeds from across the Web. In "preview" mode since earlier this year
Designed to take things a step further. Allows people to save search queries as well as data from their PC. Some features are in beta, others are planned for later.
Venerable Web e-mail service, acquired in 1998, will come under Windows Live umbrella. Will lose the "Hotmail" name.
Windows Live mail:
More like desktop mail software, with features like spell-checking and phishing detection. Microsoft has been testing the improved service under the code-name Kahuna.
MSN Messenger:
IM client already has several forms, such as the MSN-branded service and the Windows Messenger program built into the operating system.
Windows Live Messenger:
Will add social networking and Net telephony features. Beta planned for December.
MSN Spaces:
Web log software introduced in December 2004 as competitor to Blogger and Blogspot.
Windows Live Spaces:
MSN Spaces "will transition to Windows Live Spaces as Microsoft adds new features to the service next year."
"I don't think my mom will be able to use it," Li said, pointing out that those that want to use Windows Live have to start out with a nearly blank page and build from there.

Moreover, adding small applications, known as "gadgets," is no easy task. At the moment, people must go to microsoftgadgets.com, copy a special URL, then go back to Live.com and follow a series of "advanced options."

"Sorry for the inconvenience," Microsoft notes on its gadget site. "We will provide a more seamless experience very soon."

Gadgets are important for Microsoft, because it plans to use them throughout both Windows Vista (the upcoming update to its operating system) and Windows Live. The same types of traffic maps and photo viewers that can be dropped onto a Live.com page will also be able to exist on a permanent sidebar within Vista.

Microsoft also plans to use gadgets as the way to add locally stored information, such as recently opened documents, onto the Live.com Web page.

Eventually, Microsoft hopes to make using gadgets as easy as dragging and dropping the desired application onto either Live.com or the Vista sidebar.

Bulked-up Messenger coming
Some of the biggest new things that Microsoft demonstrated as part of Windows Live are coming in an update to Messenger. Although the instant-messaging engine exists today, the Windows Live incarnation will include a number of new features, including social networking and Internet telephony.

In the demo on Tuesday, Microsoft showed how the service would let someone call a contact's phone as easily as sending a text instant message. That seemed to be a shot across the bow of companies like Skype and Vonage, which provide voice over Internet Protocol calling.

However, Microsoft has now clarified the pricing of the Internet calling service, saying PC-to-phone calling will be a paid service, even during public beta testing. The company also said it will work with a yet-unnamed partner to provide the VoIP calling, rather than get in the telecommunications business itself.

Another feature of the new Messenger presented was the ability to share folders with a buddy. The idea is that dragging a file on top of a contact would allow you to create a shared folder. That folder would exist on both members' desktop and stays up-to-date with any changes to the file. While that capability was built in-house, Microsoft said Thursday morning that it is buying another service, called FolderShare, to assist in its Windows Live efforts.

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Bill Gates, Chairman, Microsoft

The new Messenger should be available in beta form by December, Microsoft said.

On the mail side, Microsoft has been showing the improved Web mail program, code-named Kahuna, for some time. However, the name change here is a big deal given the widespread recognition of the Hotmail moniker. Still, Microsoft doesn't plan to force people to change their existing hotmail.com e-mail addresses.

Another service demonstrated, but not yet available, is Windows Live Local. In his presentation, MSN vice president Blake Irving outlined a local search service that included elements of Microsoft's Virtual Earth mapping. Eventually, the company could add tools that enable members or their buddies to create annotations, creating a personalized map of their favorite spots in the city.

Microsoft also showed off a preview of a mobile search tool as part of a mobile version of Windows Live. With the service, Microsoft is aiming to have a compact Web search page that can find a nearby restaurant or gas station. It will be viewable via both Windows Mobile devices and ordinary cell phones that have a Web browser. The tool is not yet available, but should be in beta "soon," Microsoft said in a posting on its Web site.

Channeling the spirit of Hailstorm
The whole point of launching Windows Live even with some rough edges, Microsoft insisted, is to get a sense of what it is that people want. The company is also banking on its ability to rapidly update and improve its services, following the model of MSN, Google and Yahoo.

"A lot of people are characterizing this as a response to Google, and in some ways, maybe it is," Rosoff said.

But the analyst also noted that the notion of delivering software as a service is a company approach that predates Microsoft's rivalry with Google.

"The idea of moving to online services has been kicking around Microsoft for a long time," he said. Indeed, Microsoft had a companywide meeting in the late 1990s at which top executives outlined plans to deliver all manner of software as a service.

"Like many things around the Internet that were predicted to happen quickly, they're not wrong, they're simply things that take more time," Gates said in a March interview.

Back in 2001, Microsoft developed what it called .Net My Services, better known by its code name "Hailstorm," that was intended to offer many services now on the agenda for Windows Live. For instance, Hailstorm would have created a "myDocuments" service for sharing files and personalization tools like "myProfile" and "myDevices."

In all, Hailstorm, which Microsoft shelved in 2002 due to privacy concerns and weak partner support, would have defined more than a dozen such services, according to documentation distributed at the time.

"Since then many, many things have happened," said Ray Ozzie, the Microsoft Chief Technical Officer who has been put in charge of the company's overall services push.

Rosoff said that Microsoft was, in many ways, ahead of the game when it first considered the notion. "The business model wasn't there. There were still some technology barriers as well."