Microsoft has a name problem.

I used to think that Microsoft had learned a lesson from the years of confusion and frustration caused by the similar names for “Outlook” and “Outlook Express,” two programs that were not even remotely related.

The same people must have been on the committee that decided “Windows Mail” (the free program included with Vista) would be on the market at the same time as “Windows Live Mail,” the similar but not identical free program for Vista and Windows XP. Not to be confused with “Windows Live Hotmail,” the final name for Microsoft’s webmail service. Which can sync with Windows Live Mail but not Windows Mail.

“Windows Photo Gallery,” the free photo browser included with Vista, can wind up installed side-by-side with the virtually identical “Windows Live Photo Gallery,” the free photo browser for Vista and Windows XP.

Now Microsoft has renamed another product in such an aggressively baffling way that the only reasonable explanation is that Microsoft is just screwing around with us for fun. Follow along!

Microsoft introduced an audio format built on DRM restrictions, marketed as “PlaysForSure.” Partners were invited to build online stores and hardware devices based on the format. Sony, Creative and Sandisk built handheld devices, MTV partnered with Microsoft to build an online store, and lots of big players committed to the format. The marketing pitch: “PlaysForSure” was a comparatively open format and consumers would have lots of choices compared to Apple’s closed world.

After a couple of years, Apple still dominated the market for online music and handhelds and Microsoft had decided that its partners were stupid, so with no notice it ditched the PlaysForSure format and put the Zune on the market – its own handheld device, supported by its own online store, that can’t play “PlaysForSure” files. Microsoft stopped putting any energy into its “PlaysForSure” format and started competing with its own partners, essentially abandoning them and trashing the environment that Microsoft itself had created.

That was weird. It just got weirder.

Microsoft should have killed the “PlaysForSure” format but perhaps some of the partners felt they could still find a way to make money despite Microsoft’s slap in the face. Last week Microsoft decided instead to change the name of the “PlaysForSure” format. The new name for Microsoft’s audio format and DRM scheme is (drumroll):

playsforsure1“CERTIFIED FOR WINDOWS VISTA”

“Certified for Windows Vista” files play on Windows XP, but they do not play on Microsoft’s Zune, which sells music from its online marketplace that is also classified as “Certified for Windows Vista” and marketed with the identical logo – but those files won’t play on the “Certified for Windows Vista” devices that used to be “PlaysForSure” devices.

Even the kindest articles find this to be bizarrely confusing.

Microsoft’s partners in the “PlaysForSure” world might not make public statements about their hatred, but they have to be seething. They counted on being part of a coherent marketing strategy, got shafted when the Zune was introduced, and now Microsoft is removing any possibility that any consumer will give them a second thought.

The story has one more twist.

Microsoft just announced this week that it has developed an audio format built on DRM restrictions specifically designed for mobile phones. Its first partner, Nokia, is going to build online stores and hardware devices based on the format. Chirpy press spokespeople promise that oodles of companies will sign up for the new format next year.

And what name did Microsoft choose for its new format? What name does Nokia believe holds the promise of a bright future as a committed Microsoft partner? What name was announced a week after the tattered remnants of “PlaysForSure” morphed into “Certified for Windows Vista”?

playready

Are all these people nuts?