Microsoft gives Windows Live a Facebook facelift

November 13, 2008, 5:22 AM UTC

By Yi-Wyn Yen

Microsoft is trying its luck at social networking – again.

After a failed attempt four years ago, Microsoft (MSFT) is ripping a page from Facebook’s playbook, introducing on Thursday new profile and photo-sharing features to its web-based Windows Live services. The software giant allows users with Windows Live Hotmail or Messenger accounts to create online profiles that highlight what a person is doing through a Facebook-like newsfeed.

Microsoft hopes that giving Windows Live a new facelift will encourage more people to spend more time on its web properties. Checking e-mail or instant messaging accounts for up a third of the time people spend on the Internet, according to research firm comScore. Microsoft has 375 million Hotmail users and 325 million Messenger users worldwide. “If we can gain a whole 60 minutes per user, we would grow a whole Facebook in [time spent],” says Brian Hall, general manager for Windows Live.

Though Hall admits that Microsoft’s new strategy could shift some attention from Facebook – in which Microsoft holds a minor stake – to Windows Live, the real concern is longtime rival, Google (GOOG). The search giant already has a commanding lead in the search advertising business, and Microsoft worries about Gmail’s growing share in the e-mail market. “According to comScore, Google has a 6% share of email [in the U.S.] But they’re growing fast,” Hall said.

Like Google, Microsoft has struggled to make inroads in social networking. Four years ago, Microsoft launched Spaces, a blogging tool to build a social networking site within Windows Live. Though Microsoft added 100 million people in it first year, less than 1% of social networking users use Spaces today. “The blogging approach [to social networking] is not the right approach. People are too busy to make that investment,” Hall said.

Windows Live lets its new newsfeed feature do the heavy lifting to give people’s friends updates on what they’re up to. Microsoft has partnered with more than 50 web companies, including (AMZN), Twitter, Flickr,and iLike, a music discovery site. Anytime you blog on WordPress, write a restaurant review on Yelp, or watch videos on Veoh, your status is updated through your Windows Live profile.

Analysts say the new Windows Live makeover is a preview of Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows 7. The latest version of Windows is expected to integrate tools like photo-sharing, videos, and messaging more seamless between PCs and mobile devices. “All these built-in applications with a blend of Google, Apple, and Facebook is Microsoft’s view of an integrated world,” said Rob Enderle, president of the Enderle Group. “Windows Live comes out first. This is designed for Windows 7.”

Microsoft’s had success with operating systems, but the company still struggles to make a profit from its Internet businesses. Microsoft is banking that more time spent on Windows Live will translate into more web searches on Live and more ads viewed on its portal, MSN. For its fiscal first quarter, which ended in September, Microsoft lost $480 million from its online unit. “We have to get great at the advertising business,”  Hall said.

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