Sunday, January 04, 2009

Note to Microsoft's Live team: WTF?

I am a reluctant and decreasing user of their email service and the contrast with Gmail is telling. Joined up thinking seems to be in short supply on the Live team over at Microsoft.

First problem: finding the damn thing! Live Search for 'mail' and the top hit is something called (?). Hotmail / Live Mail isn't even on the page. Google has you at number 5 - bloody generous under the circumstances. Swap 'mail' for 'email' and the same thing happens. Search for 'live mail' and you get some sort of downloadable email client. You already ship an email client with the operating system you muppets!

Thanks to Google I have now found Live Mail:

This page fails for more reasons than I have patience to describe, here is a sample:

  • Headline item: "New | Manage Newsletters". I have no idea what that even means.

  • "Hi, Rupert!". What is the comma for? Small point I know, but it's ugly.

  • "Mailbox Usage". Is anybody ever even close to their 5GB limit? If they are, warn them by all means, otherwise stop taking up real estate and stop making me think.

  • Where's my bloody email already? Oh, it's the non-underlined, non-blue, link called "Inbox" floating in what I retrospectively deduce is a list of folders. No icons, no demarcation between that space and any other space on the page. Weak.

More poking around reveals that this page was actually the Live Hotmail landing page. The Live home page itself is different again:

Better, but still flawed. The two headline items are the date and the weather. I can work these out quite easily already using a combination of the computer clock and a window. Fundamentally it is trying to do too much with one page: weather report, news service, email alerts, social networking, photo sharing, search, etc... Every piece of information you put in front of the user subtracts from every other piece. Tie two birds together, and though they have four wings, they cannot fly.

Finally we reach the Inbox. Pretty and usable enough, but paging 20 emails at a time is so old school it took me several visits to spot the paging links at all. No way to mark all messages as read or to select all the messages in the folder is just frustrating. By way of balance I suppose I should list the things I like: the reading pane perhaps, which nicely fills the screen. However, the hate easily outweighs the love.

Come on Microsoft: Google is completely kicking your ass on web-based services. Gmail, Reader, and Search are fantastic on desktop and mobile devices (don't even get me started on your mobile portal). If you want to build an enterprise service like Live that owns every part of the user experience, you need anchor applications that people love to use. They will then be curious about your other offerings and start to explore. For example, Gmail is a great mail client and has a list of various other services as real HTML links on the top line of the page; it doesn't beat you over the head with a list of every product group with influence over the landing page.

Live needs to work out what it is all about: Is it the web version of the users trusted desktop apps? Is it trying to exploit synergies between applications? Is it the gateway between the web and the desktop? What makes the brand any different to MSN, which also feels like all the appliances in your house switched on simultaneously?


Richard Gaywood said...

That sounds terrible. I've only used Live Mail fleetingly, so the only thing I noticed on your annoyances list were the Inbox link being hard to find (which it is, I looked for it for ages).

The essay The Uncanny Valley of Web Apps is interesting. It says that unless webapps can look exactly like desktop apps (which they cannot, for technical reasons) then they are better off being obviously webapps. Otherwise they look too desktopish and just confuse people. Google gets this, I think, much more than Microsoft does.

Rupert said...

I had read the Bill Higgins' post before but forgotten about it; thanks for the reminder. It definately rings true.

Emulating desktop apps is always going to lead to an unfavourable comparisons, no matter how smart your HTML/Ajax/JScript team are (and those guys are smart).

I think Google's offerings get the idea of focus much more clearly; the user doesn't need to easily navigate between GMail, Search, and Reader: they already have a browser and an OS around the page that does that. Microsoft seem to expect you to run in kiosk mode; too many OS developers shoe-horned into the Live group perhaps?

Side note: my father-in-law still subscribes to the old Active Desktop hyperlink-on-the-desktop metaphore. Keeping it real!

Simon Chapman said...

Not sure I agree with some of your post. The Windows Live solutions are pretty cool and demonstrate the start of a joined up thinking. What versions are you using? The screenshots seem to be from older versions and look nothing like what I see.

Couple the web services with the new wave of Windows Live desktop applications and I think you have a winning formula (note this is similar thinking to my point about iPhone Apps and services being the killer feature for the iPhone).

As Rich points out, what Google does best is keeping things simple and platform neutral. It might be true that this might win the day for them.

The main thing that annoys me about Windows Live at the moment, is the fact that they've kept the top banner ad for the Calendar feature and not all the solutions(such as mail) seem to be on the latest template.

Rupert said...

The screenshots are current; taken from the web that day (and still the same today). Perhaps they are serving different versions to different countries? Let's compare when I get back to the UK.

I agree there is huge power in the web services and the desktop applications might be able to leverage that. Perhaps that part of their strategy is joined up and coherent, but that is the behind-the-scenes part that the consumer will not see. My point was more about the user experience: Live Search should be able to find Live Mail for instance. If they don't get that right, they will lose hearts-and-minds-and-identities and their large Hotmail user base.

On reflection, I am not sure I understand their business model. If Google own your email and news streams, they can better target ads and deliver more click-throughs. What will Microsoft get from owning your email, calendar, photos, social networking, etc... Will this help shift more paid-for software? Will they try and seriously monetize it as an ad platform (doubtful)? Is this simply an essential requirement to support the operating systems of the future - part desktop, part cloud? Do they think the future platform is a chubby client (son-of-Xbox360), and will they be making money on each sale?

I await Big Steve Ballmer's CES address this week, but I doubt Live will be high on his agenda. He has a new operating system to sell to computer makers and shareholders.

Interesting times though. Perhaps the eventual winner is yet to show his hand.