OK so the official start of summer isn’t for a few weeks, but Microsoft is facing its most important period in perhaps its entire 30 year history, as initiatives in all its important consumer and online services come together. How they do will do much to shape Microsoft’s future as a player in consumer services.
In 1967, the counterculture movement, although it had been building for a number of years, came together in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. That summer changed the way we looked at “the establishment”, the war, and the world. In similar fashion, Microsoft’s consumer services haven’t really all come together until now. Windows Live spent three years finding itself, Search has been on its own vision quest , Windows Mobile was stuck in a corporate rut, and Zune was too young to know any better.
While we don’t expect to see Steve Ballmer in paisley, we do think that this summer will be Microsoft’s Summer of Live. Let’s take a look at what we’re expecting:
Bing: Search gets a new name, and a new direction
Bing went live last night, although some parts of the world are getting a “beta” experience and not the full-on “preview” (if you want to try the preview, change your country to US in the upper right hand corner of Bing). Microsoft has focused its efforts on specific verticals, and from early reports has released an impressive product. Intending to be a “decision engine” for shopping, travel, health, maps, and video and images, with a new clean interface and surprisingly good core relevance, this summer marks the beginning of a new era for search. How it will play out in terms of market share and user acceptance will be a big question, but this time Microsoft can’t be accused of copying anyone. Bing is new and fresh and a different approach to search.
Zune and Games and consumer perception
Our guest reporter Chris Poirier is at E3 this morning (the MS press conference is being streamed live at 10:25am PDT, sorry couldn’t find a direct link to the stream. Chris will have more from E3, and might be popping up on our LiveSide Twitter feed, too), where Microsoft is expected to surprise and delight. One of the reasons we’re adding some coverage of the Zune (and Windows Mobile) to LiveSide is that consumer perception matters. Microsoft really is going to make or break the success of all of the Live services based on what consumers think about their products, and whether or not it’s “cool” to use them. What we’re seeing, with the new ad campaigns and new hardware from Zune, etc., may be a shift in perception about Microsoft. Another $80-100 million campaign for Bing isn’t going to hurt, either. Backed by solid software offerings from Zune, fairly seamless integration between services centered around Live ID, those ad campaigns, and some new fresh looks with results that deliver, Microsoft is making a serious attempt to shed its stodgy image and start fresh.
Windows 7 and Windows Live
The centerpiece of a live services push, and the centerpiece in new attitudes about Microsoft, will be Windows 7, expected to be released this fall (but the Summer of Live will be full of Windows 7 talk, for sure). Along with that, we’re expecting a Windows Live Wave 4, which will bring together the desktop experience the same way Wave 3 solidified the online experience. Again, the perception that “Vista is bad” has hurt Microsoft, but that could all change quickly once the “Windows 7 rocks” ball gets rolling.
Microsoft has made some serious blunders in the live services space in the past few years. The delays of Longhorn, which became a not yet ready for market Windows Vista, cost Microsoft. The launch of Windows Live, to great fanfare, was unfocused and poorly planned. MSN Search/Windows Live Search/Live Search bit off far more than it could chew, couldn’t find an identity, and added to the perception problems plaguing Microsoft.
This summer may change all that. Microsoft clearly has discovered the importance of perception in the consumer marketplace, and the importance of paying attention to design and user experience. Bing exhibits few of the inconsistencies that have plagued Windows Live, for example, and Windows 7 is Windows Vista with its act cleaned up. Some $400 million in advertising, by firms like Crispin Porter + Bogusky and JWT, aren’t hurting, either.
So as the weather heats up (here in the northern hemisphere), the buzz about Microsoft looks like it’s heating up too. What will happen this fall and beyond after the initial buzz dies down? Will Microsoft be fast enough to build on that initial wave of enthusiasm? Historically, Microsoft has been far too slow moving to be successful in the online space. We’ll soon find out if that’s changed, too.