Could Microsoft's rebranding extend far beyond SkyDrive?

Microsoft is folding its cards and won't defend its claim to the SkyDrive brand; uncharacteristic move could hint at substantial renaming in the works

Last week we received the startling news that Microsoft intends to drop its legal defense of the SkyDrive brand in response to a U.K. High Court ruling in favor of British Sky Broadcasting's claims on the name "Sky" -- as in "Sky One" and "Sky Sports."

The fact that Microsoft lost in court isn't so surprising (though it boggles my imagination that a company can trademark the term "sky," any more than one can trademark the term "windows"). The surprising part is that Microsoft folded its hand and walked away from the table.

As many have noted, this all sounds a lot like the "Metro" naming fiasco, where German retailer Metro AG was reported to take exception to Microsoft's use of the term. In the Metro case, Microsoft couldn't make up its mind about a replacement for the name "Metro," leading to a bewildering array of alternates, none of which have stuck. But the situation with SkyDrive is far more complex: SkyDrive's been a recognized (and registered!) Microsoft brand for six years.

Microsoft's legal team isn't known for backing down, particularly in a trademark dispute with a juicy protracted appeal in sight. And the agreement between BSkyB and Microsoft leaves lots of squishy details undisclosed:

In June, High Court Judge Mrs Justice Asplin issued a judgment holding that Microsoft's use of the name SkyDrive infringed Sky's rights in the "Sky" mark. According to the settlement, Microsoft will not pursue its planned appeal of this decision and Sky will allow Microsoft to continue using the SkyDrive name for a reasonable period of time to allow for an orderly transition to a new brand. The agreement also contains financial and other terms, the details of which are confidential.

Tellingly, there's no mention of who paid whom or what was promised.

I have a feeling there's something else lurking -- not just the rumored tie-in between BSkyB and the Xbox One -- so let me put this in perspective.

As you well know, Microsoft has horrendous branding problems. If you're a consumer seeking Apple, you know that i-This and i-That and Mac-whatever are part of the Apple fold. If you want Google, there's the Google name front and center on most -- but notably not all -- Googly products. Samsung? It mastered its branding decades ago.

For Microsoft we have Windows, of course -- then there's Windows RT, which isn't really Windows at all. There's Windows Phone, which runs Windows but can't run most Windows apps. The Windows Store sells Windows apps, but they won't work on 95 percent of the Windows computers. Microsoft's Windows tablets are called Surface and Surface RT, although Surface RT doesn't run the same programs as Surface -- quite possibly the most reprehensible branding blunder in Microsoft's history.

There's Office, which is very different from Office on the iPhone and Android, different also from Office Web Apps, different again from Office RT. Try to explain to a typical college graduate that Outlook is completely different from, has nothing to do with Outlook Express, doesn't work anything like the Outlook Web app, and won't work with the Outlook phone apps unless you have an Office 365 account -- except for Office 365 Home Premium. Then there's Windows Store (Metro) Mail, which doesn't look anything at all like Windows (Live) Mail or Vista's Microsoft Mail.

You also have SkyDrive and Skype; Xbox, Xbox Extras for Windows Phone, and Metro Xbox apps; Bing; Internet Explorers of many hues; Microsoft Security Essentials and its offspring-and-progenitor Windows Defender; OneNote; SharePoint; the Microsoft account (nee Live ID, .Net Passport, Wallet, and many more); Live (which isn't); Essentials (which aren't); Messenger (going away); and Hotmail -- except it isn't Hotmail any more, it's, which... you get the point.

If you aren't confused, you aren't paying attention.

Microsoft has a long history of failed attempts at rebranding. Remember when Windows XP and Office XP arrived at more or less the same time? Consumers were so taken in, they didn't realize that Office XP didn't require Windows XP, and vice versa. Then there was the "Live" effort, where every imaginable type of program was rebranded "Live" without an inkling of justification, and the "Live Essentials" ran the gamut from an Outlook connector to a movie editor.

What if Microsoft has a massive rebranding -- particularly for consumer products -- already under way? What if SkyDrive, as a brand, was headed out the door anyway? That would certainly go a long way toward explaining Microsoft's sudden stand down.

The "Windows" brand itself is headed the way of "Oldsmobile" -- a stalwart for many years, pushed out by competitors perceived to be less stodgy. Windows is your dad's operating system. Or your grandma's. Or both. It isn't where you expect to see cool new ways of doing things: It's a programmatic old folks' home. 

Perhaps Microsoft's abandonment of the term "SkyDrive" is a harbinger of fresh branding -- something deeper than the vacuous "Live" and more substantial than just another name.

At least, one can always hope.

This story, "Could Microsoft's rebranding extend far beyond SkyDrive?," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.