Sunday, April 27, 2008

Wikipedia, Live Search, Microsoft...

A conversation I had at the gym this evening made me head over to Wikipedia for some quick research. Whatever people say about Wikipedia entries, there haven't been many occasions when I have wanted to get some general information, and not found it on the site. Fine, the authenticity of the information can't be validated and the site can be used to push the personal agenda(s) of the author(s), but what information source today is 100% objective? Even the news isn't free of some form of bias and censorship - I don't see people abandoning the televised news broadcast...

The item of my interest this evening was ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease), and as I started typing my search query, I was presented with a drop down box with potential results. The suggestions were surprisingly useful (my experience with most other websites' suggestions hasn't been that good); being the engineer that I am, I tried a few other queries to get a sense of how good the suggestions were, and when I found a suggestion for Wannabet, my nonplussed expression turned into a smile!

I really like Wikipedia for its continuously growing set of articles and the useful features they continue to add to the site. The tipping point for any product (or idea) is when a user wonders how they managed without the product at an earlier point in time. Microsoft Office, Google, the Blackberry and in my opinion, Wikipedia, are but a few examples of products (and brands) that have gone past that tipping point and are now invaluable to their customers. In the case of Wikipedia, by breaking down the barriers to information exchange, it has single handedly rendered sites like Encarta and Encyclopedia Brittanica irrelevant. The strength of Wikipedia is its simplicity; it is not encumbered by the "ill of integration" - the single feature that can ring the death knell for a great idea.  I wondered out loud then - could Microsoft pull off a Wikipedia? The findings of such a study might help fix some of the ailments of Windows Live.

I, like thousands of Microsoft employees, don't use Live Search. In my particular case, my earlier experiences with the product gave me no reason to switch away from Yahoo! search, my engine of choice. In the spirit of second chances, I decided to give Live search another go this past week. There has been forward progress, which is heartening; the search results were pretty relevant, the image results were good too, but the site did suffer from performance issues. The question is, would I start using Live as my search engine if they fixed the site's performance and some other low hanging issues?

Sadly, my current answer is no. People are creatures of habit, and unless something really compels them to change their ways, they aren't going to. The search results from Live were as good as Google and Yahoo!, but being "good enough" doesn't cut it any more. Live search doesn't have some basic features that its competitors have had for months. As an example, even Wikipedia has a search suggestion box, why can't Live? In order to effectively challenge an incumbent, the upstart has to go the extra mile - a great example of this idea in action is Firefox. This begs the question - are the Live guys aware of this facet of human behavior? If they are, why doesn't the team's stable of products reflect this understanding?

It couldn't be as simple as a disconnect between what the team knows and what it delivers, so I continued thinking about what was holding Windows Live back. Could the problem with Windows Live be in its DNA? Is it doomed to fail because it is suffering from Microsoftitis, and will it fare better if the entire division was spun off into an independent entity? Everything said and done though, buying Yahoo! doesn't seem like the right course of action to fix Windows Live. Or is it?

4 comments:

  1. Marwah Magic4/28/2008 2:57 AM

    1) A core challenge with Live is that it does not do a great job of the basics. Topics such as performance and fit/finish may not be sexy to engineers, but these are the basics to delighting users. Crawl > walk > run.

    2) I'm not aware of great integrations MSFT's done. My experience in Business Solutions (now Dynamics) revealed an integration nightmare, and apparently Visio was a disaster.

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  2. 1. Live really doesn't have some basic features, which is what my post highlighted.

    2. As to your second point, I couldn't agree more, which is going to the subject of a future post.

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  3. I strongly agree to the comment about Live being struck by Microsoftitis. I think it would have done better if we wouldve run it in a silo under the radar for some time with a small team of sharp people and release a kickass product, rather than letting such an important product be sucked into the corp politics.

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  4. Time for the next post dude!

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