Why are 30 million Microsoft refugees headed to WordPress.com?

Microsoft has a long history of rewarding loyal partners.

"Partners?" you say. Yes, partners. Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com, uses Microsoft Azure services. Both companies revealed the partnership during Microsoft's November 2009 developer conference. Now I would never suggest any kind of quid pro quo arrangement, whereby Automattic agreed to use Azure (and take the PDC 2009 stage promoting the relationship), with the promise of getting Windows Live Spaces bloggers when the service later shut done. Others' tongues may wag, but not mine. I see a simple partnership, but a surprising one nevertheless. After all, WordPress' core software is open source.

But where else would Microsoft send its blogging customers? Blogger is an obvious no-choice because it's run by Google; too bad, because Blogger's scale and reach make it as appealing as WordPress.com. Last week's Six Apart sale ruled out TypePad. Surely Ben and Mena Trott already were looking for a new partner long before the sale. TypePad in transition might be good for new corporate entity Say Media but not so good for homeless Windows Live Spaces bloggers.

Tumblr would be a good fit, for reasons I'll later explain but how? Tumblr doesn't offer import tools for other blogging services, there is no comment system and it's a closed system for community sharing. I don't see that many of the smaller services, Posterous among them, would have the reach or server infrastructure to absorb tens of millions Windows Live Spaces bloggers.

Whys and Why Nots of WordPress.com

Windows Live Spaces has huge international presence, supposedly 30 million active bloggers and for its size and reach need for massive server infrastructure. At the least, Microsoft would want to send its blog customers to a service with similar capabilities. Microsoft provides the server infrastructure today and, well oh well, looks to still be the provider tomorrow. Today Microsoft pays to host those blogs. Now Microsoft will be paid, assuming Automattic uses Azure for at least some of the new subscribers. WordPress.com has international presence, is available in about 130 languages, is free like Windows Live Spaces, is a hugely popular and fast-growing blogging service and supports blog import from multiple services, which now includes Spaces. For lots of very good reasons -- not just partnership with Microsoft -- WordPress.com the is right place to send Windows Live Spaces bloggers.

That said, there are many reasons why WordPress is a poor fit. Based on my survey of Windows Live Spaces blogs, I'd guess that 50 percent or more are located in international markets where free and other Microsoft services, such as Messenger, are important brand drivers. Also, in surveying Windows Live Spaces, I see that many are nothing more than photo blogs, which is not the predominate number I see at WordPress.com. I observed this pattern 3 years ago, and it's little changed today. In June 2007, I blogged: "A deep peruse of Windows Live Spaces reveals two dominant patterns: Many, perhaps most, blogs are outside the U.S. (in places where there may not be alternatives) or the Spaces contain only photos."

Based on how I see people blog at both services, there's good but not great community or blogging style synergy between them. Branding will be a problem, since in many international markets Windows Live Spaces rides the coattails of Microsoft's brand(s). From the perspectives of community approach and blogging style, Tumblr would be a better fit. However, during 2010, WordPress.com has added some of the microblogging features that are Tumblr's trademark, so to speak. If WordPress.com isn't the best fit today, it may well be during the six-months Windows Live Spaces bloggers have to switch services.

For WordPress.com, its Microsoft partnership is going to pay off big in terms of new subscribers. There aren't many services that import posts, photos and comments from Windows Live Services. If bloggers have little else where to take their content, WordPress.com will be top choice.

According to WordPress.com stats, there are 13.9 million blogs as of this month, 350,000 blog posts a day, 400,000 comments posted each day and 260 million visitors each month. The number of WordPress.com blogs could swell by as much as 30 million Windows Live Spaces subscribers over the next six months. The growth potential is simply astounding. Disclosure: I haven't blogged at Windows Live Spaces in years. I do use hosted WordPress software but would prefer WordPress.com for its community and other features. However, limitations on customization and other capabilities keep me away.

Who Gives Up 30 Million Customers?

Restated: Supposedly there are 30 million active Windows Live Spaces bloggers, which, by the way, is much lower than the 100 million blogs claimed in June 2007. Still, it's an unbelievable number of users that raises question: "Why shut down the service?" By many measures -- 2.2 times larger than WordPress.com being one of them -- Microsoft runs one of the most successful blogging services on the planet.

There are a number of good reasons why Microsoft would give up Windows Live Spaces, such as how well it fits (or doesn't) with objectives of other Web services, the company's continued closing of consumer services and the infrastructure cost of supporting millions of bloggers for free. But there is another: Microsoft had very good founding concepts for MSN Spaces in 2004 that later overlapped with Facebook.

At the time I first met with Microsoft managers about its online services strategy, I was an analyst with the now defunct JupiterResearch. Microsoft product managers outlined a clear and compelling strategy about people publishing content for whom they know. The Web is too big, they rightly asserted. What matters is contenting your stuff to people who would be most interested in it, like family, friends and coworkers. I liked what I heard.

Four years ago, I compared Six Apart's Vox to Windows Live Spaces. In August 2006, I wrote at the now defunct Microsoft Monitor blog: "Features are highly comparable. Both services are free, ad supported and provide mechanisms for blogging, sharing photos, music or videos and connecting to a widening circle of friends and family." Vox is shutting down in two days. Windows Live Spaces will be gone in six months. Is it coincidence that these two services with similar design goals and features are shutting down around the same time? I think not.

Facebook has fulfilled most of the same philosophical and development goals articulated by Microsoft managers six years ago. In early 2007, Facebook had about 30 million subscribers -- about as many as Windows Live Spaces today. Facebook now claims more than 500 million subscribers, although some people dispute they are all active. Facebook users share photos, status updates and other content with a circle of friends, family and other known or accepted relationships, which is exactly what Microsoft wanted to accomplish with Spaces and connected Live services.

Microsoft wrongly measured Spaces' early success. I wrote about Windows Live in the aforementioned June 2007 post:

Microsoft execs wear blinders when evaluating their services, because the company measures Windows Live success by the numbers -- as in how many users there are. It's the wrong measure, particularly for services people don't pay for. Microsoft name + free + global reach - competitors' lack of global reach = big numbers of users. Free + large number of users ≠ user satisfaction; not necessarily, anyway.

Facebook has the reach and capabilities Microsoft failed to deliver with Windows Live Spaces. The service launched with great vision but not enough execution. Microsoft is right to cut its losses, no matter how many tens of millions of users they may be. Windows Live Spaces clearly hasn't grown its subscriber base. If the 2007 figure -- 100 million blogs -- referred to active subscribers, then Windows Live Spaces has shed more than two-thirds of its users in just three years.

Yesterday afternoon, I tweeted back and forth with Altimeter Group's Michael Gartenberg about Facebook's negative impact on Windows Live Spaces. He didn't wholly agree but responded: "Spell it fail any way u want. It could have been much more."

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