I ran through this history recently with someone at work and thought maybe I should post it up online for posterity’s sake.
This is all in the past, so why is it interesting now? Well, domain names and site branding is part of your ‘information architecture’ and it is almost always a bit of a compromise. At the highest level, you have your domain that is equal to your brand (Microsoft.com, Stripe.com, Toyota.com, etc.) so that’s easy to create and to understand what should live at that address. For anything else though, paths below that root, or subdomains, you are essentially creating a categorization of content, and that will evolve over time. Also, a related discussion of domain names and why you should always use your domain instead of making random new ones.
The MSDN and TechNet days #
Back in the 90’s Microsoft’s developer documentation lived under the brand “MSDN” (Microsoft Developer Network) and content aimed at ‘IT Professionals’ (folks who deployed software, administered servers, wrote more scripts than application code) lived on another site “TechNet” (Technical Network I guess?). As someone who worked as a writer and developer on the team behind these sites, I can tell you that this division was always a little fuzzy. Developers often need to install and administer servers (SQL Server for example), and many ‘IT Pros’ wrote code. The dual sites often led to a confusing experience for users, the documentation to install Exchange Server was on one site, while the documentation on it’s APIs lived somewhere else. Real old-timers, like myself, will remember that these sites were originally just the web presence for a pair of “content on CD” subscription systems, similar to how Netflix used to be a way to sign up to get DVDs delivered in the mail.
Oops, we ignored our sites, and they got old and stale #
Eventually, both sites (which ran on essentially the same code, at least when I worked on them, with customizations) were understaffed and ignored for many years. It was decided that they should be replaced, that their brand names were associated with the old Microsoft, and that there was little value in trying to update the code base.
A new site would be created, and it would be the home of all types of technical documentation, regardless of the audience. For a time, the domain ‘developer.microsoft.com’ was considered (yes, it does exist as essentially a routing page), because that was a common pattern for companies posting their technical docs (see developers.google.com, developer.twitter.com, developer.amazon.com, and others). This hits on our ‘information architecture’ problem though… not all content that would live on this site is for developers, some of it is for the database administrator, the data scientist who uses Power BI, the no-code user that is going to use Power Apps, the network administrator who needs to configure Windows group policy, etc. Developer as the top-level brand would be excluding all those people.
Small note here, as someone who was present for these discussions, I don’t believe there was real data confirming this would exclude anyone, or that it would be a problem. There was fear it would be though, and that is often enough when a large group of people at a company need to agree on a decision.
Docs arrives as the new unified home of documentation #
The very safe, and hard to argue with, domain of “docs.microsoft.com” was eventually chosen, along with the brand of “Microsoft Docs”. Everything on this site would be documentation, so it was perfect. It was only ’technical’ documentation, docs for users of Microsoft Office, or Windows, were not included, and that did cause some discussions back and forth over the next few years. It was often suggested that maybe all documentation should live under docs.microsoft.com, but other than a few random bits of non-technical content, it never happened.
This brand and domain launched in 2016 and worked well with no issues for a few years, while developer.microsoft.com was kept around as a general landing page for developer topics, routing to a bunch of different sites including docs.microsoft.com.
Learn is here (to stay?) #
In 2018 though, it was decided that we needed a large amount of interactive, guided learning material. Courses, modules, knowledge tests, etc. All of which would live on the docs site, under the /learn path. It was branded “Microsoft Learn” and was very popular. To a lot of people, especially those that worked on this new learning content, this was not documentation though, and it felt odd to them that it was under docs.microsoft.com. This concern was voiced often and loudly for a few years, until finally in September of 2022, docs.microsoft.com was redirected to learn.microsoft.com and the entire site was rebranded “Microsoft Learn”. Documentation was moved to /docs as part of this change. Learn is a very broad (or vague, depending on your mood) term, so hopefully it will be able to stay as the brand through many future evolutions of the content.
FYI, the above history is based on my own recollection of events. I was a user of MSDN/TechNet back in the 90s, joined Microsoft in 1999, worked on MSDN from 2001 to 2005, then joined Microsoft Docs as an engineering manager right before it was ready to launch.
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