This week in Microsoft

Microsoft heats up its competition with Google by launching a slew of Web-based tools tied to its Windows and Office products.

Microsoft is heating up its competition with Google by launching a slew of Web-based tools tied to its Windows and Office products, but what exactly are we being sold?

Kicking off what he called the "live era" of software, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates said that the company plans to launch new Internet-based complements to its core products. Microsoft is working on two products, "Windows Live" and "Office Live," that create opportunities for the company to sell online subscriptions and advertising. Both are targeted at consumers and smaller businesses.

Gates said that Windows Live is a set of Internet-based personal services, such as e-mail, blogging and instant messaging. It will be primarily supported by advertising and be separate from the operating system itself. Office Live will come in both ad-based and subscription versions that augment the popular desktop productivity suite.

While the "live" software push is seen mainly as an effort to compete with rivals such as Google and Yahoo, there are a number of smaller companies that suddenly find themselves in Redmond's competitive crosshairs.

While instant messaging programs have had voice chat for some time, Microsoft's move would be broader by allowing free calling to traditional phone numbers as well. Vonage, Skype Technologies and others have offered such abilities but have done so for a fee.

On the security front, Microsoft went beyond its already announced plans for the subscription OneCare service. In addition to that paid program, Microsoft plans a new Windows Live Safety Center--a free Web-based program that allows on-demand scanning and removal of viruses.

However, of the eight or so services that Microsoft showed off, the vast majority are reincarnations of products that the company had either released or tested under the MSN brand.

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.

Some CNET News.com readers were unimpressed with Microsoft's announcement. "Sounds remarkably like Apple's .Mac service," wrote Ross Bellette in News.com's TalkBack forum. "Apple's own Address Book will send out updates to one's card when updated. Microsoft are inventing things all over again, let's try something 'new.'"

And while Microsoft has talked about accelerating its business by offering services, some analysts worry that its race to compete with Google and others could leave Microsoft's very profitable business model in the dust.

Analysts say the move is probably necessary to help the company compete with rivals that threaten to offer online equivalents to some of Microsoft's cash cows, like Office. However, depending on how far Microsoft takes the strategy, it could also put the company in competition with its existing--and already lucrative--way of doing business.

For its part, Google appears to be adding reinforcements for the fight. In its most recent quarter, which ended Sept. 30, Google added 800 employees, bringing its global work force to 4,989. That's more than triple the total from just two years ago.

At the moment, Google has at least 1,000 positions available all over the world, according to a count of job openings on the company's Web site. It's difficult to provide an exact tally. Though the openings cover nearly every facet of Google, from advertising sales to human resources, the bulk of the openings are in what the search company's executives hold most dear--engineering.

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