While the introduction of new webcams isn’t usually cause for comment, Microsoft’s entry into the market is more interesting than most. While Microsoft has manufactured hardware for years, most earlier devices (like mice and keyboards) had little to do with keeping users in the broader Microsoft ecosystem. The new cameras are about more than making extra money on hardware sales, however; they suggest that Microsoft wants to maintain a strong presence in instant messaging that will help keep users 1) running Windows, 2) using Windows or MSN Messenger, and 3) publishing to Microsoft web sites.
The new product announcements are straightforward. The US$100 model will feature a wide-angle lens with a 1.3 megapixel sensor, while the US$50 model comes without wide-angle and with a VGA resolution sensor. One interesting feature of both is a large button on the top of the cameras that users can tap to bring up instant access to a buddy list, which should make placing a call as simple as a making a couple of clicks. The whole idea of the new cameras is to make videoconferencing and blogging as simple as possible for less technically-inclined users.
Why would bringing webcams to the masses be of interest to Microsoft? Competitive pressures are certainly part of the reason. Most Apple machines now come with built-in webcams and include the slick iChat software that makes it both easy and elegant-looking to do videoconferencing. Microsoft’s own solutions aren’t nearly as slick, and the company may simply want to neutralize one of the Mac’s selling points.
Of more pressing concern is the instant messaging market, where Microsoft recently announced an interoperability agreement with Yahoo designed to help both firms compete against AIM. Getting users to pick Messenger over some other client is important because of the way that the software can link people to other Microsoft properties such as MSN Spaces and Windows Live services. The webcam announcement fits in perfectly with this strategy, as the included software makes it simple for users to upload both video and pictures to Microsoft-hosted blogs on Spaces. Not only will Microsoft make money on the new cameras, but they should also see a fair number of users sign up for the company’s online services, which have taken on increasing importance over the last few months as Microsoft boosts its commitment to web-based advertising.