Whatever you can say about Microsoft these days it's trying hard to listen more to its online audiences to craft an effective online strategy. First came last week's launch of its production version Windows Live search engine, with many of the goofy Windows-esque features that hampered the early Beta version eliminated. Stripped down to a light Google-weight interface and very serviceable search results (though its news algorithms are still needing a tune-up), Windows Live is a viable alternative to Google that offers its own flavor of content. They're high quality in overall relevance but tending to favor mainstream/established sources of information more than those that come out on top based on popularity. That's not necessarily a bad thing for searchers looking for a viable "plan B" when seeking out quality content - especially those in a work and study environment who need to cite reference-worthy sources.
Then came the announcement of Zune, Microsoft's erstwhile iPod-killer, compatible with a wide range of audio file formats - including MP3s and the iPod-compatible AAC format - and equipped with the ability to share DRM-encoded content with other Zune users within wireless range of one another. Users get three plays of a shared song and then the option to purchase it from Microsoft's online music store - kind of a simplified version of the Windows Media-compatible Weed file sharing DRM system that we've heralded over the past few years. Zune is slick, tuned for both openness and rights-savvy use and ready for users who are tired of iPod's service limitations and looking for the "new, new thing."
Now comes word gleaned originally by TechCrunch from a Microsoft employee's weblog of Soapbox, the invitation-only beta debut of Microsoft's YouTube competitor, complete with multiple formats for uploading, user tagging and categorization, simultaneous viewing and browsing, RSS feeds, weblog embedding and hooks into Microsoft's Live Spaces social networking service. Feature-wise it sounds like a hit, though the quality of the content in the eyes of highly democratic audiences will tell all. These are all Johnny-come-lately services, of course, but if you're going to be late to the party at least come dressed appropriate for the action and with a unique proposition that your audience will find to be appealing.
While there are still obvious tie-ins to Microsoft products these new content-oriented product efforts seem to be a far more concentrated on leaving the traditional software business to fend for itself and to earn their stripes one user at a time on the stand-alone merits of what works for users today. It's a positioning that overall has more media savvy than Google but one that's less tied to older online media and marketing models than Yahoo. I am sure that Microsoft would like to think of itself as "plan A" for online content but as a starting point a user-friendly approach to developing content products that leverages the best of its existing relationships with publishers and media companies is a good place to begin building deeper street creds in the eyes of today's savvy online audiences.