Microsoft takes baby steps toward clearing up its branding mess

Announcements over the past few days regarding OneDrive for Business and Office Online show encouraging signs of progress

Microsoft's attempts at branding -- affixing names to products in ways that mere humans can understand -- have drawn widespread and well-deserved scorn. I've railed about the problem many times, most recently in listing it as the single most important action item for Microsoft's new CEO, from the point of view of Windows' 1.4 billion customers.

It looks like someone is listening.

Two days ago, Microsoft rebranded SkyDrive as OneDrive, a change that has been in the works for a long time. Last August, Microsoft lost a trademark infringement suit in the United Kingdom brought by British Sky Broadcasting Group, which apparently owns the trademark on the term "Sky." (Hey, if Microsoft can trademark "Windows" ... but I digress.) Microsoft said it wouldn't appeal the decision and would relinquish use of the name "Sky." A great hue and cry erupted about Microsoft's short-sightedness in choosing the "Sky" name, with one expert saying, "They should have seen it coming. And this is not the first time that this has happened to them."

Now it looks like Microsoft had a name change in the works even then -- and it just wasn't worth fighting in court for something that it would change anyway.

Yesterday Microsoft changed the name "Office Web Apps" to "Office Online" -- a welcome rebranding that makes a great deal of sense, although the tech press seems to forget that Microsoft already has an Office Online site, launched a decade ago. For the past decade or so, customers have been shuffled off to the old Office Online site every time they installed Office. Presumably, that will change shortly.

"Office Web Apps" sounds like a name dreamed up by someone enamored with this new thing called the Web. It also flies in the face of everyone who knows that "apps" are installed on your tablet or phone, as Apple ordained long ago. "Office Online," on the other hand, concisely describes the products. There's a world of cognitive difference between, say, the Word Web App and Word Online.

Those are pretty simple changes that reflect a deft (or at least sane) marketing hand. But there's one more naming change that has me very hopeful that somebody on the tech side is rethinking Microsoft's branding mess.

While SkyDrive became OneDrive (ho-hum), SkyDrive Pro did not become OneDrive Pro. Instead, Microsoft named it OneDrive for Business. It sounds like a subtle difference, but it recognizes a harsh reality: Except for their names, SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro have absolutely nothing in common. InfoWorld's J. Peter Bruzzese summed up the quandary in December:

Am I the only one confused by SkyDrive? I'm not just referring to the fact that with my Windows 8.1 PC, every document I try to save is pushed to SkyDrive -- I'm referring to the confusion between SkyDrive and SkyDrive Pro, whose poorly considered names fall into the same "let's obscure the differences" trap as, say, Windows 8 and Windows RT.

SkyDrive (and now OneDrive) is an online storage service available to anyone. Like Dropbox, Box, Google Drive, iCloud, Amazon Cloud Drive, Cubby, SugarSync, CX, Mozy Stash, Wuala, Bitcasa, and Mega -- all of which have their own strengths -- OneDrive lets anyone store data in the cloud. Like all of the others, it has a free option with minimal storage, and the cash register starts chinging as you use up more data.

SkyDrive Pro (now OneDrive for Business) is a feature in SharePoint. It's managed by a SharePoint admin, and it's hosted on a SharePoint server. You have to have -- and pay for -- SharePoint in order to get OneDrive for Business.

The only features the two products share:

  1. They're used to store data in the cloud.
  2. Their names are similar.

By differentiating the new product names just a little bit, Microsoft is taking a baby step in deobfuscating its cloud offerings. 

Let's hope it's just the first sign of a major shift.

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