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In 1994, Martha Stewart Living – the domestic diva’s flagship magazine – became the object of a delicious parody entitled “Is Martha Stewart Living?” The 64-page sendup included a look at Martha’s glue gun rack and instructions for stenciling highway signs.

That parody came to mind as I watched Bill Gates and Ray Ozzie unveil Microsoft’s new “Live” platform at a Nov. 1 press event in San Francisco. The idea behind Live is to get Microsoft back into competition with Google and Yahoo in the area of Web services – software that lives on the Internet, rather than your computer, and runs inside a Web browser. Will Live turn out to be living, I wondered, or will it be written off as a parody of technologies that others have shown they can deliver better?

Microsoft is borrowing the “Live” name from Xbox Live, the unexpectedly successful multiplayer gaming environment that lets Xbox owners communicate and compete remotely over broadband Internet connections. “Today, on the first-generation Xbox, we have over 2 million people connecting to each other live,” Gates said at the press event. “This was an eye opener for us, and it really changed the way people thought about gaming.”

Now Microsoft wants to change the way people think about Windows and Office by rolling out complementary Web-based services such as www.live.com. The site lets users build personal home pages with areas for Web search results, feeds from selected websites and news outlets, and what Microsoft is calling “gadgets” – modules that show weather forecasts, stock quotes, and the like.

One gadget shows your incoming e-mail – if you have an MSN Hotmail account, that is. Clicking on one of your messages opens Windows Live Mail, which looks and acts pretty much like Outlook, even though it’s running inside a browser. (It’s a trick accomplished through a programming approach called Asynchronous Javascript and XML, or Ajax, which Google has used to great advantage with Gmail.)

Windows Live – which is the only new example of Live services released so far – is a neat trick. Microsoft’s engineers have made it easy to remix your favorite information sources into a single page, which shows, at the very least, that they grok some of the concepts behind Web 2.0, the digerati’s unofficial term for an emerging philosophy of Web programming that emphasizes participation, scalability, and the integration of multiple devices.

On the other hand, Windows Live is highly reminiscent of Start.com, a personal home page service that Microsoft released in beta form a few months ago. And Xbox Live, which Microsoft is counting as part of its Live platform, has been around since 2002. That’s prompted some skeptics to charge that Live is merely a hash of prettied-up services Microsoft already offers.

Writes ZDNet columnist Phil Wainewright  “Gates and his lieutenants, recognizing the need to pull something out of a hat, have had a quick look around and hurriedly cobbled together whatever they could find to at least give the appearance that Microsoft has something to offer in the on-demand arena.”

Gates tried to preempt that complaint at the Nov. 1 event. “Is this completely new and out of the blue? The answer is no, absolutely not,” he said. “There are elements of this that we and others have been doing for many years.”

But the difference, Gates implied, is that Live’s launch reflects a new way of thinking at Microsoft – a shift as big as the company’s awakening to the Web in 1995 and the release of its .NET software development platform in 2002. “Making this the centerpiece – thinking through [how to integrate] all the hardware and software and devices – is a big change,” Gates said.

This is more than hot air, in my opinion. Bill G. appears to be getting religion about Web services. And when Microsoft puts its collective mind to something, it can overcome rivals who have big leads. In this case, the Web services available from Google, Yahoo, Amazon, et al. aren’t nearly as far ahead of Microsoft’s technologies as Netscape was in the Web browser department in 1995.

So it would be highly unwise to assume that Live is dead on arrival.

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