Knock, knock, knock . . .

REDMOND, Wash. – Eight and a half years in this game, and somehow I’d never had to make the trek out to the world’s most famous suburb. This is, of course, home of Microsoft Corp., about a half hour east of Seattle.

On the agenda the week I visited was the launch of Microsoft’s Windows Live Messenger open beta, a cornerstone of the Windows Live suite of online services and software. Formerly a by-invitation-only beta app, it’s now open for public consumption.

Windows Live, the suite, is more or less what you’d get if you cross-bred Messenger, Skype, Friendster, Blogspot, Explorer, Hotmail, Google Earth and a few other sundry Net-based software and services offerings.

It’s an effort to meld together everything you can do on the Web and seamlessly move from context to context.

With Google making big noises about a desktop, and a variety of instant messaging services providers, this would seem a logical development. And, if it does what’s advertised on the tin – with customized, personalized and seamless content and services – it could be a powerful experience for entry- and mid-level consumer users.

Live will be largely free to the consumer. Microsoft is planning on investing US$1 billion in online services, and that doesn’t include some of the work that’ll be done on the Office Live, Xbox Live and Windows Mobile fronts that are part of the Live ecosystem, according to Microsoft’s corporate vice-president for the MSN and Windows Live platforms, Martin Taylor.

How does the math work out? There’s $500 billion in ad revenue to be had annually in the world. Right now, the online slice of the pie is about four per cent, even though, says Windows Live platform group VP Blake Irving, about 20 per cent of our media consumption is online. Just getting those two percentages to balance would provide an online advertising market equivalent to the worldwide software sales market.

And Microsoft feels it’s well-positioned for a healthy slice of that pie, with ice cream and a little fruit on top.

Microsoft boasts 290 million unduplicated contacts in its Messenger and Hotmail ranks, contacts who have volunteered varying amounts of demographic information – geography, hobbies, behaviour, age and more, including 10 million who have given payment instrument information, says Irving. That, Microsoft feels, is a compelling sell to advertising partners.

And if Live lives up to the pitch in terms of user adoption, it’s going to follow a time-honoured consumer technology path into the enterprise.

Consider previous technologies – cell phones, PDAs and blogging, for example – that have found a back door into the corporation because a level of personal adoption forced the IT infrastructure’s hand.

IT departments are already dealing with the security implications of the use of various instant messaging platforms, which are useful not only as personal tools but in a professional context.

As technologies such as Live, the ever-imminent Google browser/desktop and other Web-based communications technologies that integrate a wide variety of tools start knocking at the back door of the enterprise, it’d be wise for the IT department to give some long, hard thought before the fact as to how to maximize their utility and minimize their risk.

Dave Webb is special projects editor for the IT Business Group and editor of Canadian Smart Living, which will launch this fall.

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