The single most confusing part of the Windows 7 intro last week at the Professional Developers Conference was the part about Windows Live. It doesn’t help that Microsoft also launched its ambitious cloud computing project, Microsoft Azure, at PDC (see ZDNet’s excellent coverage from Mary Jo Foley, John Carroll, and Phil Wainewright).
Judging by the comments I’ve read and heard, many people mistakenly concluded that Microsoft is planning to deliver a suite of Internet-based applications in tandem with Windows 7. Here’s what’s really happening.
A handful of applications that were previously included with Windows will no longer ship with the core operating system. This list includes Windows Mail (known as Outlook Express in Windows XP), Windows Movie Maker, and Windows Photo Gallery. (Windows Messenger, which was included with Windows XP, was dropped from the main OS package before the debut of Windows Vista.)
The Windows 7 versions of all these programs will be offered to Windows customers as individual options in a package collectively dubbed Windows Live Essentials. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be browser-based products. They’re going to be traditional standalone Windows applications, with the crucial distinction that the primary delivery (and update) mechanism will be the Windows Live website. Each of these products has the capability to integrate with web-based Windows Live Services, but they’ll work just fine on their own.
If Microsoft can twist enough arms or offer enough incentives, most of these apps will probably be on consumer computers sold by leading PC makers like HP and Dell and Sony. But if you install your own retail copy of Windows or create a corporate image using an enterprise edition of Windows 7, you’ll be able to choose your own options for these functions, or download the latest edition of the Windows Live programs directly.
Why the change? Blame it on the courts, which have significantly constrained what Microsoft can do with anything that’s a part of Windows. By decoupling the programs from Windows and delivering them through Windows Live, the company avoids a whole host of legal issues. So, shortly after the launch of Windows Vista, Microsoft moved development of those programs over to the Windows Live group, where they now exist as downloadable files.
Using Windows Vista, the experience of finding, installing, and using the newer Windows Live programs is confusing, to say the least. Although the updated versions are, for all practical purposes, upgrades to the original applications bundled with Vista, they don’t replace those programs. To make matters worse, you have to manually configure the new program to be the default handler for common tasks such as importing photos from a digital camera.
As a way to work around this confusion, Microsoft has dropped all of these programs from the core Windows 7 package and is instead delivering them under the Windows Live Essentials brand.
Today, the Windows Live products that will ultimately arrive in Windows 7 have been available as beta releases since September. The full suite includes Mail, Messenger, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Writer, and Family Safety, plus an Internet Explorer toolbar and a Microsoft Office Outlook Connector that supports Hotmail and Windows Live accounts.
Microsoft is clearly betting that many if not most OEMs delivering consumer products will want to include the most recent Windows Live package as part of the default Windows installation. If they succeed, they get rid of a longstanding headache and remove another item from the checklist of Windows annoyances that corporate customers and power users complain about so regularly.
In the process, they also create an opportunity for alternative service providers, most notably Google, which has its own suite of products that offer mail, photo editing and sharing, and an instant messenger. (Not to mention the Google Office apps, which also compete head-on with Microsoft products.)
Can Microsoft compete successfully in a world where its products aren’t installed by default on every desktop? Clearly, someone in Redmond is willing to make that bet.