Looking for vital signs in Microsoft Live

Microsoft Live is a new departure for the company. Does it matter that a high-profile member of the team is newly departing?

In Cold War days, there was a profession called Kremlinology. Faced with impenetrable security and contradictory signals from the Soviet Union, analysts turned to watching for side effects of whatever policy was actually being followed. One popular source of information was the group photograph — who was standing next to whom during the May Day parade, who had vanished since last year, who had been airbrushed out of official documents.

Many of the same techniques are used to double-guess the goings on inside a similarly opaque institution, the People's Republic of Microsoft. The most recent high-profile departure is one Niall Kennedy, guru of the RSS content syndication standard and previously leading light at Technorati. He'd only been at Microsoft since April, a high-profile hire flagged as part of the company's drive to move services online.

And now he's off, trailing a more-in-pity-than-in-anger blog entry saying that nothing was happening; the Microsoft Live strategy was in "heavy change, reorganization, pullback, and general paralysis". He couldn't do the job he was hired to do, so he decided to leave.

Reaction has been mixed, from taking this as proof that Microsoft is in even worse trouble than we thought, to goodbye and good riddance to someone who wasn't up to the task. Both could be simultaneously true: it is unlikely that neither is correct.

Whatever one's opinion of this particular event, two things can be taken as read. This is an embarrassment to Microsoft that touches directly on the company's most important single point of strategy. The world is warming to Web services: the old, non-networked days are all but over and no matter what the next big success story is, it will not be selling software on CDs.

More importantly, even if Microsoft's Live strategy is coherent, sensible and progressive, the company has failed abysmally in communicating that fact. Investors, customers and developers have no idea what's going on: each successive announcement and roll-out only adds to the chaos and a sense of a company struggling to keep up with its competitors. With the most basic information missing — how much it will cost, and how long it will take to make it back — the quality of Microsoft's governance is in question.

Don't get distracted by personalities. Kremlinologists rarely got it right, and completely failed to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. In retrospect, the real signs were buried in the figures of the failed economy, the dull old facts about money, production and capability. Everything old was running down. Nothing new was trending towards sustainability. Investment was the wrong amount in the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

Those who want to know the future of Live — and thus Microsoft — are best advised to ask what's being spent where, on what, and why. These are the life signs that matter.

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