Windows Live: Trying to AOL the Internet.

Windows Live: Trying to AOL the Internet.
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What is Windows Live?

Windows Live is an web initiative from Microsoft that combines a variety of software and services. Most of them are accessible through your browser. It includes mail, search, calendar, blogging, instant messaging, gaming, event planning, photo sharing, forum discussions, and much more.

With each new version of Windows, the integration with Windows Live becomes more significant. Vista included links to download Live software, and Windows 7 has removed a number of applications from the base OS and instead pushes users to perform those tasks via Windows Live. XBOX Live, Games for Windows Live, and Microsoft Office Live are also being rolled into Windows Live throughout 2009.

The goal appears to be the creation of a Microsoft controlled walled garden. It really conjures up images of America Online, and the whole desire to be just about everything - or at least a miniature-internet of its own. We have been down this road before, and by its end people had a bitter taste in their mouth. One has to wonder why Microsoft thinks it is a good time to revisit this concept.

The Walled Garden

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This term was popularized during the heyday of America Online (AOL). AOL sold ads throughout its site, and that eventually became the most profitable area of their business. They sought to maximize ad views by keeping customers on their pages as much as possible. All manner of tools, tricks, scary sounding warnings, and interface design were utilized to make it harder for AOL users to find non-AOL content.

AOL jealously guarded the eyeballs of its customers and did not believe in concepts like external linking or traffic exchanges. These happen to be major concepts that contributed to the Internet’s explosive growth. The willingness of most sites to link to other sites with related information - regardless of site ownership - contributed to everyone’s traffic expansion. AOL missed out on this phenomenon, while at the same time angering its own customers by spoiling opportunities they should have had to learn more about topics they found interesting. The World Wide Web is founded on links. AOL tried to keep those links internal.

This concept ultimately failed. Unsurprisingly, people do not want web sites or communities they participate in to hide valid content from them simply to exploit them for more ad views. The Internet has a wealth of information and entertainment available, but not if the sites you use prevent you from finding it.

Why a New Walled Garden? And Why Now?

Microsoft has been trying to get into the content business for years now. WebTV was one attempt that failed multiple times. XBOX is another, which started slowly but is doing very well now with the XBOX 360.

The desire to get into content has continued to grow as Microsoft faces declining sales of its operating system and office products. Customers upgrade their hardware less often and are less interested in new features from new versions of their products.

Furthermore, Microsoft sees a real threat from Google and its efforts to be a content hub. Through YouTube, Google Desktop, and other applications, Google is making a strong move into the content creation market. Microsoft hopes it can stake its own foothold in the content HUB and Internet utility/Web 2.0 space.

Why the Walled Garden Approach?

The theory is that if you can keep customers only viewing your content, you get all the page views and all the ad clicks. This means you make all the money off their traffic. This is an enticing concept in theory, and it is likely why Microsoft appears to be pursuing the walled garden approach. If customers see Windows Live as a one stop shop for information and every major Internet application they need, the potential ad revenue would be enormous - not to mention income from add-ons and additional services.

What’s Wrong with a Walled Garden?

The same thing that was wrong with AOL. When a company wants to greedily monopolize the attention of its customers, it rarely resists using all manner of dishonest, dirty tricks to keep them there. This includes squelching information about sites outside their network, spreading fear and misinformation about other sites or products, and deliberately hamstringing or sabotaging other programs that run on their customers’ computers. These are the types of things AOL did to protect their walled garden, and it is reasonable to consider the possibility that Microsoft might do the same with Windows Live.

This Phenomenon Writ Large

The most disturbing thing about the walled garden philosophy in general is the fact that it has already corrupted so many web sites and communities on the Internet. Posting links to articles or information on other sites is a good way to get banned from many community forums.

One of the most common ways to start a discussion on a forum is to link to an article, quote some of it, and then add one’s own analysis or response. Then other readers of the forum read the article and come back to the forum to discuss it. For years, this is how forums worked in most communities and it worked well. The content creators (writers of the articles) benefited because their articles and their sites got visits and pageviews. The owners of the forums benefited because their sites got traffic and pageviews from readers and posters who enjoyed the topic. Everybody was a winner.

But now, greedy site operators seem to think sharing traffic means LOSING traffic. They want people to quote articles in their entirety so their own forum readers do not click out and visit anyone else’s site. Not only is this IP theft, but it is contrary to the philosophies that helped the Internet grow. Sites linking to each other, sharing traffic, and swapping links are how many sites built themselves up from nothing. It is what motivates writers to do research and write articles. Having one’s work linked to and appreciated is a matter of pride and an indicator of success.

The resurgence of the advertising business model has made web site operators far more selfish about their traffic. The ironic thing is, the long term result of this extreme selfishness is more likely to hurt such web sites. If posters cannot start discussions by linking to interesting articles, less people will read and post on the forum. The current trend hurts everyone in the long run. Content creators get less traffic, and community site operators get less traffic as well. This walled garden approach to traffic can only lead to a net reduction in traffic for everyone.

How To Change This

For Windows Live, Microsoft needs to make an effort not to duplicate AOL’s mistakes. They should not try to wall people in and block people from accessing or utilizing content and products of other web sites.

For other site operators, they need to remember that traffic sharing and link swapping are what made the Internet such a special place. Users could read about something on one site, and have links to similar or more in depth information somewhere else. Clicking around is what made people fall in love with the Internet and the web. Site owners, forum moderators, and community managers should encourage this rather than stamp it out. I understand that site operators have to fight spam, but a genuine attempt to start a discussion is not spam. The fact that people want to link to other sites when discussing topics is not a threat to YOUR site. Do not arrogantly think your site is the only place on the Internet for information about your topic area. It isn’t. Be happy that people choose to discuss such topics in your community, and enjoy the traffic that comes from that.