A very reliable source tells me that Microsoft is summoning journalists from around the globe to Redmond for an announcement on Windows Live on May 10. This is clearly a significant launch, quite possibly the shift from Beta to full release products of some of the Windows Live suite of products. I strongly suspect that the launch, whatever it entails, will position Microsoft yet further as an advertising company. There have been a range of signs recently that Microsoft is reconceiving itself, and much of that shift is around advertising. Consider the following:
1. In a press release dated March 15 titled Microsoft Developing Web’s Largest Advertising Network, Microsoft describes how it is now placing advertising across not just MSN Live Search and MSN Spaces, but also Office Live (the online version of Microsoft Office). It also says it will exploit advertising opportunities in Xbox Live, IP TV, and its mobile properties.
2. After launching AdCenter, Microsoft is expected to launch ContentAds this year, which will allow its advertisers to place their ads not just on Microsoft properties, but on an array of independent sites (i.e. “contextual advertising”). The best way of understanding Google in its current form is as an advertising aggregator, placing the ads they sell on a wide variety of online and offline properties, increasingly ones they don’t own. Microsoft now seeks to be an ad aggregator too.
3. Last week the Wall Street Journal reported that Microsoft is acquiring Massive, a company that inserts advertising into games, for up to $400 million. The intent is clear – Microsoft sees embedding advertising into its users’ activities as central to its strategy.
4. Within the Windows Live suite, Windows Live Expo is a classifieds site that seeks to overlay all of MSN’s functionality to create communities. The direct comparison here is with eBay, whose acquisition of Skype, nominally to provide connectivity between buyers and sellers, is mimicked by how Microsoft provides instant messaging, voice, and video connectivity to enable communities to connect and transact business.
Clearly part of all this is copying Google’s – and to a certain extent Yahoo’s – positioning. Google’s acquisition of Writely has firmly established its intentions of providing web-based office utilities, undoubtedly advertising-supported. Microsoft’s moves suggest it is considering meeting them front-on, with the possibility of some configurations of Office Live being available in free advertising-supported models. This could cannibalize its existing market, but if it doesn’t do it, others will do it. This time it is seeking to be ahead of the game. Following Google’s footsteps in much of the development of the Windows Live suite doesn’t mean Microsoft doesn’t have a bigger vision here. Microsoft could be an extremely different animal in just a year or two from now.
[Update May 5] This has now been announced as the official launch of Microsoft AdCenter, moving out of pilot mode. AdCenter is said to
“provide advertisers with a one-stop-shop experience, whether buying search, contextual or display ads across a number of Microsoft properties…. Contextual advertising testing begins on MSN in the U.S. market this summer. In addition, the following Microsoft properties are preparing to launch ads in the near future: Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live Safety Center, Windows Live for Mobile, Office Live and Office Online, and the Xbox® Web site Xbox.com.”