A modular Windows 7? What it may mean for Windows Live

Word seems to be filtering out about a move to a more modular core for Windows 7, with additional pieces layered on top.  Mary Jo Foley first wrote about it last week, with a hint at what’s to come for Windows Live:

One of my sources close to Microsoft recently told me that “major parts are being removed from Windows 7 (mail, photo, video)” but still will be available as user-selectable services. This plan, if it comes to pass, ought to help lessen the Windows attack surface that has been the target of various Microsoft competitors and antitrust regulators who’ve been critical of Microsoft bundling everything but the kitchen sink into Windows.

..and then Ken Fisher at Ars Technica expounded a bit, with a somewhat different take on what it will mean for users:

So, Windows 7 will be modular, but to an unknown degree. I personally expect the modularization to focus on value-adds, as did Anytime Upgrade on Vista. It allows Microsoft to draw lines between what is and isn’t “in” the OS for DoJ compliance issues. Whether it be Live Services, Windows Media Player, or even Internet Explorer, Microsoft could roll those into modules and then say, “Hey, look, that’s not part of Windows, we’re charging extra for that!” Foley says that she’s heard from sources that Microsoft is working on a Photo + Mail + Video module that would exist apart from the OS, for instance. I’ve heard less specific groupings myself.

The software+services side of modularization is what is surely driving this change at Microsoft. As I argued last summer, this is all a critical piece of Microsoft’s software subscription dreams. In “2010, a ‘Windows 7’ software subscription odyssey,” I noted that Microsoft has been reinventing its approach to Windows in order to facilitate the continued sales of multiple levels of the Windows “experience.” Microsoft has confirmed that there will be multiple SKUs for Windows 7 and that there will be different subscription services built around the OS.

So what is going on, here?  Will Windows start charging subscriptions for added services that up until now have been part of the OS?  My guess is probably not.  Let’s look at the reasons why shipping a lean mean Windows 7 with “free” value adds makes sense for Microsoft, and might just make a lot of sense for consumers:

  • Slimming down a bloated OS.  Windows, like many mature systems, is bloated, hard to manage, and hard to change.  Major steps were taken in Windows Vista to begin to move away from the old “everything and the kitchen sink” model, although MS is taking a beating in the marketplace and in public perception because of it.  Windows 7 will begin to build on the foundation laid by Vista.  Yes there will be value adds, but getting rid of the bloat allows for innovation at the core, upgrades to the additions outside the core development cycle, and continued focus on security and performance without tripping over problems wrought by peripherals.
  • Consolidating Live Services.  The three pieces Mary Jo Foley mentions, Photo, Mail, and Video, all exist in some fashion as part of Vista now.  However up until last year, they were being developed separately from their Windows Live counterparts.  Microsoft had double the engineering and double the resources working on what really are not very difficult engineering challenges, and were getting in the way of Windows innovation.  By stripping out Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery, and Windows Movie Maker, among others, and replacing them with Windows Live add-ins (as is done now, actually, but with a lot of redundancy – add in Windows Live Mail and you still have Windows Mail on the machine – totally unnecessary), the experience is much cleaner on the consumer end, and much easier to maintain, on a lot of levels, on the backend.
  • Ending monopolistic practices.  While it’s enough of an incentive to strip out the live services to gain efficiencies outlined above, an even greater gain comes from how this will play out with the EU, etc.  Microsoft isn’t happy about having to continue to shell out money to anti-trust litigations.  Rather than being a lock in service, as Ken Fisher thinks, Microsoft most likely will structure these add-ins as open ended.  In other words, if you want to use Firefox instead of IE, no problem.  If you want to use a different mail client, go for it.  Of course Microsoft will push hard to bundle its own services with new computer sales, and we’ve seen how well Windows N did in Europe – an OS with no bells and whistles is just no fun.  But there won’t be lock in, the costs involved with fighting the EU over another OS are just too great for Microsoft to endure.  They need to change direction, and they may be about to do just that.
  • Software + Services.  Microsoft, with Ray Ozzie at the lead, is about to place a big bet on Software + Services, showcased by Live Mesh and the upcoming Live Mesh Technology Preview.  While Windows Live offers an interesting set of services, Live Mesh may just be the killer app it has been looking for.  For once, instead of forcing it down our throats, Microsoft just may have a service that’s compelling enough to go out and get.  If Microsoft can learn from the mistakes Apple just made with their iTunes/Safari upgrade (see: Windows Live Suite Installer), but instead offer a simple, up-front way to install Windows Live services that “just work”, and offer them to a combined Microsoft/Yahoo! customer base, things might just get very interesting indeed.

Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player, along with the Windows Live services, are already “free”, and there’s no reason to think that Microsoft would expect people to stand for paying extra for them (especially when there are free alternatives).  Some services may indeed come subscription based, but a modular Windows 7 isn’t about locking consumers into subscriptions.  The advantages to Microsoft in cleaning up Windows are clear, the complaints about monopolistic practices are loudly heard, and there is a real change taking place, led by Ray Ozzie, to embrace a more open model.

Microsoft has already made moves away from duplicating Windows/Windows Live redundancies, so some stripped out features will come as no surprise.  How much of a modular system Windows 7 will come to be remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: computers, with lots of processing power and lots of storage space, aren’t going away anytime soon.  What Microsoft is putting together, with a lean OS, a readily available services layer, a robust cloud storage platform, and a way to synch it all together, may prove to be the right package for both Microsoft and consumers.