Microsoft today officially released Windows Live Messenger to the public, and they’re in a public relations frenzy at Redmond. But the real story isn’t a new IM client. Nay, the launch of Windows Live Messenger officially kicks off Microsoft’s new online branding strategy which will see a complete revamp of Microsoft’s MSN brand and a significant focus on developing new and improved online services. Twenty of them, to be exact.
Today’s IM launch marks the first time that Microsoft has tried to bring the new Windows Live brand to a wide swath of users. While the company did take the wraps off of its new Windows OneCare Live service just last month, that is a new product trying to build a new user base. With its new instant messaging client, Microsoft hopes to entice the majority of its 240 million-strong user base.
As I noted back in March, the new branding strategy is about burying the "Microsoft Network" concept that anchored MSN and replacing it with a Windows-centric brand, aka "Windows Live." The company publicly says that MSN is "alive and well" and isn’t going to be killed off anytime soon, but with almost all major MSN "services" being rebranded as "Live," the network will be a pale image of its former self. As such, the launch of Windows Live is rather important for Microsoft, which explains why the company is working the press big time with this one.
"The launch of Windows Live Messenger represents a significant ‘down payment’ on the Windows Live vision and an important milestone for the business. We’re proud and excited to release this product to consumers, who have helped shape the service during our beta process so we could deliver an experience that unifies their online communications experience across voice, video, sharing and more," said Martin Taylor, corporate VP of Windows Live and MSN at Microsoft.
Microsoft wants users to move en masse to Live Messenger, and they want the first major encounter with the new branding to be buzz filled and loaded with happy juice. Can they deliver? What can the Live Messenger launch tell us about future Live developments?
Make no mistake, the new Live Messenger is by and large the old MSN Messenger with a makeover and a handful of improvements. For many of the Live-branded services, this is essentially what we’ll see—the old mixed with the new, embraced and extended but not revolutionized. For example, Live Messenger prominently features "me too" features such as free PC-to-PC VoIP, improved file sharing capabilities, and offline messaging support (finally). The real focus is on complete Voice over IP support, however. PC-to-landline calling is now supported by a commercial tie-in with Verizon’s Web Calling service, which will connect you to anywhere in the world for a nominal per-minute charge. Currently calls throughout the US, Canada, China, Japan, and Australia are priced at 1.9¢ per minute, but pricing for other countries varies. Currently, Skype calls are free throughout the US and Canada through the end of the year.
The company is also lauding a series of web phones to be released by Uniden and Philips (and Motorola later this year) that will allow users to connect phones to their computers that could then be used throughout the home or office. Skype offers similar functionality through products like the Linksys CIT 200, although reviews to date have been mixed. Continuing the hardware push, Microsoft is also touting the service’s support for its new LifeCams, which offer higher quality video than most existing offerings for the PC.
The takeaway is simple: Windows Live Messenger is, among other things, a VoIP client that can compete with Skype. This is the direction that all of the major instant messaging clients are headed in, so in this way Live Messenger isn’t all that unique, new branding or not. But Microsoft hopes it can build the most compelling solution by integrating the Live experience throughout Windows. For example, Windows Live Contacts, which Microsoft claims already has 25 million users, will plug into both Windows Vista and Live Messenger, among other products. The company hopes that centralizing contact management will improve the end users’ experience as they shift from one Live product to another, and users will be able to share contacts easily, as well.
This strategy will come to envelop more and more applications if Microsoft has their way. The company has unveiled an API for implementing Windows Live ID authentication services within Windows applications, hoping that Windows Live ID can succeed where Passport largely failed. And you can see why: the company says that it has more than 20 Live-powered services and products in the pipeline, and it is dedicating more than 20 percent of its annual research budget to developing them.
"Windows Live is a huge growth opportunity for Microsoft. The online advertising opportunity will be a big growth driver for Microsoft in the coming years, as the market continues to expand. To ensure we are ready to take advantage of this opportunity, we plan to dedicate roughly US$1.1 billion of the company’s overall $6.2 billion research and development budget toward Windows Live and MSN in the 2007 fiscal year that starts next month. However, this doesn’t mean that Microsoft is backing away from our other core businesses. Windows Live is a distinct growth opportunity," Martin said in a Q&A.
How new will these new products be? Of the 18 Live products currently in testing, all but a few are MSN services that are being rebranded and retuned for the "Live Experience," although it is not entirely clear what that means. One thing is certain, though: if this is Passport 2.0, the climate may finally be right for the single sign-on concept. Google has been working in this direction for more than a year, tying most of its services to Google accounts that are obtained when users sign up for popular services such as Gmail. The Google master plan includes a proliferation of users with Google Accounts, which the company can then use for other commercial gains, including its mysterious payment service. Coincidentally, Google also has a single sign-in API in the works. Microsoft, Google, and even Yahoo all have the same desire: get accounts into as many hands as possible. Then, unveil payment/wallet systems and supporting portals for transactions, and then sit back and listen to the happy sound of cha-ching.
Side note: Speaking of cha-ching, Microsoft’s strategy is a bit confusing, as well. Live Messenger installs with a promo tile for RealNetwork’s Rhapsody music subscription service. The service is also prominently featured in the client, which leads me to ask the obvious question: why isn’t Microsoft promoting its new URGE co-brand now? MSN and RealNetworks became friends last year, but now that Microsoft is pushing URGE, I’m quite surprised to see Rhapsody featured in this new release.