I could rant about most of those branding missteps, but allow me to concentrate on the last one. Can you believe that Microsoft intentionally threw away the name "Hotmail" -- one of the most widely recognized brand names in the world, right up there with Coca-Cola and McDonald's and Toyota and, yes, Microsoft -- turning it into something absolutely nobody understands?
That's worse than crazy. It's self-destructive.
Case in point: Microsoft's attempt to create a database of user IDs and associated data, including individuals' financial information. It all started with Hotmail: sign up for a @hotmail.com account, and Microsoft stored the information you provided.
Then your Hotmail account suddenly became a Microsoft Passport, a fancy name for a single-login authentication service that Microsoft hoped would take over the Internet: Everywhere you go, the marketing material touted, you could log on with your Hotmail account, er, Microsoft Passport. And if you put your credit card info into Microsoft Wallet (earlier called Passport Express Purchase), buying items anywhere on the Web would only take a couple of clicks.
The privacy groups went ballistic -- like the Joker, only less civilized.
Microsoft bobbed and weaved. To its credit, Microsoft hired one of its most vocal critics, to put reasonable limits on privacy incursion. The name of the service changed -- branding and rebranding as Microsoft Passport Network, MSN Passport, .Net Passport, Windows Live ID. Now we know it as a Microsoft account, and it's baked into Windows 8. The personal financial information came and went, and the terminology/branding seems to have stabilized: If Apple can have one Apple ID or Google a single Google account, you can certainly have a single Microsoft account -- if you can figure out how to get your old Zune, ZunePass, Xbox, and Windows Phone accounts switched over to a Microsoft account.
There's that branding thing again.
Microsoft misstep No. 6. Windows LiveWhich brings me to Live. In November 2005, Microsoft announced Windows Live and Office Live, kicking off one of the most confusing branding exercises in the history of international commerce. Decades from now, B-schools will be using Windows Live as an example of branding gone insane.
At first, Windows Live drew on MSN-branded software -- MSN Messenger became Windows Live Messenger, for example; MSN Hotmail became Windows Live Hotmail -- and added an online security scanner, the OneCare antivirus package, and a method for sharing your Internet Explorer favorites across multiple machines. From the beginning, Windows Live was an odd hodgepodge of websites, Web-based applications, and PC-based applications, with a browser add-on tossed in for good measure.
Then it grew. And grew. In August 2006, Microsoft unveiled to testers a website called Windows Live Essentials. Microsoft pulled down the site shortly after, replacing it with a similar site called Windows Live Installer (yes, it was a website) that downloaded Windows Live Messenger, Mail, and Writer. In October 2008, Microsoft announced that Windows Live Installer (the website) would become Windows Live Essentials (the website and software package), and Windows 7 would not ship with Windows Mail, Photo Gallery, or Movie Maker. Instead, Windows 7 would give customers links and encouragement to download and run those applications and several others. At the time, it wasn't clear if Microsoft was yanking those applications out of Windows in order to get Win7 as a whole shipped on time or if the programs were removed over antitrust concerns -- possibly both.
Over the course of many years, Windows Live included about 50 different products, few of which talked to each other, with absolutely no discernible common objective. Basically, whenever the powers that be decided to publish a new program -- online, local, website, whatever -- they branded it "Live" and kicked it out the chute.
Earlier this year, Microsoft started dropping the "Live" moniker, setting off yet another round of branding confusion. Windows Live Essentials became Windows Essentials, and Windows Live SkyDrive became just plain SkyDrive. But Windows Live Mail, Messenger, and Writer still have "Live" in their names.
Microsoft misstep No. 5: Windows 8Windows 8 is turning out to be a misstep of unprecedented proportions. The fundamental problem, as many of us at InfoWorld have described repeatedly, is the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of the Frankenstein interface. Clearly, with Windows sales heading deeply down and the entire PC hardware industry going with it, Microsoft had to do something. Relegating the old-fashioned Windows desktop to a tile on a new mobile phone app hasn't done the trick.
Or maybe we're all wrong and Windows 8 will breathe new life into the PC industry. In another six months, we should know for sure.
Microsoft misstep No. 4: Windows 8 brandingThere's nothing inherently wrong with Windows 8 -- it's a noble (if flawed) attempt at bringing Windows into a more mobile future. There's plenty inherently wrong with Microsoft branding. When you bring the two together, the combination's absolutely lethal.
Please. I spent a whole day trying to come up with a worse name than "Windows RT." I couldn't do it. Microsoft could call the Metro-side-of-Windows-8-plus-Office-2013-RT just about anything, and it would be better than Windows RT.
So many people right now are so confused about the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8 that we won't hear the end of it for another decade -- or longer. Customers who buy a Windows RT tablet, thinking they were getting Windows, will be sorely upset. I bet the return rate for Windows RT tablets at the retail level goes well into double digits, simply because of the naming confusion.