Microsoft's Windows Live Wave 3 consists of new and updated Windows Live applications, new and updated Windows Live cloud services, and new and updated Windows Live mobile solutions. In my initial Windows Live Wave 3 Preview, I provided an overview of the Wave 3 vison. In this second part, I'd like to focus on the applications, most of which are now available in beta form from the Windows Live Web site.
In a recent briefing with Windows Live Senior Director of Product Management Ryan Gavin, I was told how Microsoft plans to extend the value of its Windows desktop operating system with these freely available but high quality applications. "These are rich applications that 'light up' Windows," Ryan told me. "We're turning the corner on communications sharing conundrum by better integrating the experiences--your instant messaging persona, your email, and your social networking services--and making it easier to share and communicate."
"You should only need to manage one list of friends," he added. "So we're doing that in this release. Long term, we're looking at how easy it is to set up a new PC. Windows Live Sync [formerly Windows Live FolderShare] is a peer-to-peer (p2p) synchronization solution that will be integrated into the experience going forward. We're taking some very good first steps in that space now as well."
General notes about the Wave 3 applications
If you're a user and fan of Microsoft's previous generation Windows Live suite applications, you'll notice one thing right away when you install the Wave 3 suite beta: Most of the applications have adopted a new look and feel that includes a new type of toolbar. This look and feel mimics that of the upcoming Windows 7 Explorer shell, and for a reason: Microsoft is removing a number of bundled applications from Windows 7 and making them part of Windows Live instead. But the company also wants to ensure that these downloadable applications look at home in Windows, thus the common look.
The Windows Live Wave 3 applications feature a new toolbar type that will also appear in Windows 7.
So Windows Live Wave 3 is our first glimpse at the UI Microsoft is supplying with the next Windows. Early reactions are mixed: The new toolbar type dispenses with icons almost completely, mostly using instead textual buttons that are Spartan and bare-looking in appearance. I'm OK with it, to be honest, and I suspect the goal here is to take the attention away from the window chrome so you can focus more on what you're doing.
Most Windows Live Wave 3 applications still support a colorize option as well (curiously, Windows Live Photo Gallery still does not) so if you're not interested in the pale blue default color, you're free to go with hot pink or whatever other color strikes your fancy. Some applications, notably Windows Live Messenger, also support more complicated and interesting themes, a feature that will be replicated across most Windows Live Wave 3 online services as well.
A grab-bag of Windows Live applications
OK, let's take a look at the applications that are available in the initial beta of the Windows Live Wave 3 suite, along with another application that will be coming down the road.
Windows Live Mail
Windows Live Mail is Microsoft's excellent all-in-one solution for email, contacts management, newsgroups, and RSS feeds, and the new version completes the deal with support for calendaring as well. The new Calendar module is attractive and appears to work well, but it's missing some key features that are present in the Web-based version of Windows Live Calendar. First, there's no support for the To-Do List, perhaps via a separate To-Do module, and that's a major omission. Second, while Windows Live Mail's Calendar module does support Day, Week, and Month views as expected, there's no support for Work Week view and, more egregiously, Windows Live Calendar's excellent Agenda view.
Windows Live Mail now supports some Windows Live Calendar functionality.
Problems aside, the Calendar module is a great start, and it eliminates a gaping hole in this application's functionality. One question I have is whether this precludes the need for Windows Calendar, the Windows application. Windows Calendar, unlike the Calendar module in Windows Live Mail, does support both tasks (to-do list) and a Work Week view, so presumably Microsoft would add at least those features to Windows Live Mail before removing Windows Calendar from Windows 7. But looking to a mail application for calendaring functionality is a bit much. I'd like to see a separate Windows Live Calendar application offered and available from outside of Windows Live Mail. Ditto with Windows Live Contacts, which should arguably replace the lame Windows Contacts feature in Windows.
Windows Live Messenger
Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's instant messaging (IM) solution, has arguably been updated more than any of the other previously-available Live suite applications. Visually, the application has been given a complete overhaul and it is now far more attractive and more easily customized and personalized. The entire UI has been so rejiggered, in fact, that it's hard to know where to start. The top toolbar has been removed, freeing up space and cleaning up the UI. Your display picture now features a glass-like pop-up menu on mouse-over that, get this, actually lets you change your display picture (this feature was curious not available in previous versions). The tabs have been moved from the side of the application window to the bottom.
Windows Live Messenger has been dramatically updated in this release.
The most important improvements, however, come where they're needed most, with your contacts list. Now, you can segregate out important contacts into a new Favorites list that appears at the top of the contacts list display area, right where you want them. You can also used differently-sized icons for favorite contacts so that they're even more prominent than the other riff-raff. Finally, you can force the contacts list to use real names, too, so you'll see "Bob Smith" instead of something stupid that Bob picked like "Funky Bob" or whatever. This feature alone is worth upgrading.
From a customization standpoint, yes, Windows Live Messenger supports a colorization feature like most other Windows Live applications. But it also supports themes, which Microsoft calls scenes, as well. You can select from Microsoft's small set of scenes or just drag any image over to the top of the Windows Live Messenger main application window. Not only will that image be used as the background for that area of the window, but the color scheme of the image will permeate the rest of the window in a subtle way as well. When you chat with contacts, this custom scene will appear in the conversation window of your contact (but not in your own conversation window, oddly).
Windows Live Messenger now supports pretty graphical scenes in addition to colorizing.
Windows Live Messenger also supports custom avatars, which can be used in place of a static display picture. This functionality has been around for a few years, but new to this version is the ability of these avatars to visually "react" to the emoticons you use in your conversations. So if you use a ":P" emoticon (for "tongue sticking out") your avatar will literally stick out its tongue. You can even do this with your own photo by using a Web cam: Windows Live Messenger will step you through the process of recording different images in different poses and moods. I'm sure that's a big hit with the kids, but let's just say I won't be experimenting with it too much myself.
As with the photo email feature from Windows Live Mail, Microsoft is making it easier to share photos with your friends via Messenger as well: Whenever you drag an image file into a conversation window, a new photo share view comes up. This can be irritating if you're trying to send a photo to someone, but it's useful if you want to share multiple photos because you can, of course, drag and drop any number of photos into the window, creating a nice gallery-like effect.
When you send one or more photos via Windows Live Messenger, a new photo sharing mode appears.
There are a ton of other new features as well. You can easily IM groups of people now with a new Group feature that includes a customized conversation window that supports multiple contacts. And the infamous MSN "green guy" final heads the way of the dodo (well, he's still there in the application's tray icon), replaced by cool colorizations on each contact's display picture: Green for online, red for busy, orange for away, and grey for offline.
Windows Live Movie Maker
While the last three versions of Windows Movie Maker have been excellent video editing solutions, let's face it: Very few people have the aptitude, time, or inclination to edit videos regularly. So Microsoft is removing it from Windows and replacing it with the new Windows Live Movie Maker (previously codenamed Sundance), which makes its debut in the Windows Live suite beta. It's also seriously detuning this application's feature-set and reorienting it as a solution for quickly editing video and then posting it on the Web.
Windows Live Movie Maker: Too simple for its own good?
This change actually makes a lot of sense, but it's apparently upset the 17 people who actually use Windows Movie Maker. That's understandable, but as Spock noted in "Star Trek II," the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. I mean, how bad could it be?
For starters, the Windows Live Movie Maker application window is significantly simpler than that of its predecessors, with far fewer options. It also previews yet another Windows 7 UI convention: An updated version of the ribbon interface, codenamed Scenic, which first debuted in Office 2007. Even the ribbon in Windows Live Movie Maker is over-simplified, with just two tabs, and the stilted File menu actually features an Options choice that opens an Options window with, get this, no options at all. This is bare bones stuff.
No options for you. No, seriously. There are no options.
So, what can you actually do with this application? Microsoft says that Windows Live Movie Maker is designed to help you share movies and photos online, the latter presumably via animated slideshows which are, in fact, just movies. You can share these movies online via services like YouTube and MSN Soapbox, but also via more traditional media like CD and DVD. OK, fair enough. But how the heck do you edit anything here? You can add content, like photos, videos, and music. And then... what? And as for that "CD and DVD" option, there's no disc creation capabilities at all, or even integration with Vista's Windows DVD Maker application. All you can do is save to the Web or export to WMV. Then you're on your own.
Ryan said to give it time. "Movie Maker will persist with the beta tag longer than the other Wave 3 applications," he said. "The design approach for Movie Maker is that while there is a small set of people who are avid users, most people just don't use it. So we wanted to make it very simple, like our blogging and photo solutions, bring it to the masses."
We'll see. I don't mind a simpler Movie Maker, but this application is a joke in its current state. I assume that's going to change before the final release. In the meantime, I can't imagine anyone getting any useful functionality out of this thing. It's a train wreck.
Windows Live Photo Gallery
Windows Live Photo Gallery is one of my favorite applications in the original Windows Live suite and now it's getting even better. The biggest addition is similar to a feature Google just added to its own Picasa photo management utility (and to the Web-based PicasaWeb Photos service): A facial recognition feature Microsoft calls people tagging.
"It's interesting, most people don't tag photos [with meta data], but they do tag people," Ryan told me. Fair enough: In the past, the ability to find photos in Windows Photo Gallery and Windows Live Photo Gallery was limited somewhat by the user's propensity to actually tag their photos. And I'm guessing few people went to that time and effort. I certainly didn't.
People tagging is easy enough: Open a photo and click the Info toolbar button. At the top of the Info pane are some new people tagging options, including "Add people tag," which lets you select a person's face and provide the name, and "That's me!," which lets you quickly identify yourself in photos. The Add people tag option provides a fly-over with your list of Windows Live Contacts, a nice touch, and as you add people's names to tags, those names are provided at the top of the list going forward.
Windows Live Photo Gallery uses facial recognition so you can people-tag your photos.
They're also added to a new People tags menu in the navigation pane of the application window. From there, you can view photos of particular people (or, with multi-select, multiple people), which is handy. There are sections for your favorite contacts (which is also exposed in Windows Live Messenger), your entire contacts list, and for other people, which are those people for which you've manually created people tags.
And yes, if you're curious, Microsoft adds this information to the underlying photo file, so it will travel with the file and be exposed elsewhere. This has interesting ramifications, because Web-based photo services of the future (cough, cough) might just become compatible with this functionality when and if they arrive. In the near future. You know, theoretically.
The original version of Windows Live Photo Gallery added a few new capabilities to the application's Fix functionality, and the new version adds one more, Black and white effects, which allows you to choose from six filters: No filter (black and white), orange, sepia tone, yellow, red, and blue. As with previous versions, changes are made to a copy of the original file and you can always return to the original if desired.
And while this isn't necessarily new to this version of Windows Live Photo Gallery, Microsoft has recently improved the extensibility functionality of the application by opening it up past the Windows Live Spaces and Flickr options that were available last year. Now you can also use this application to post photos to Google PicasaWeb, SmugMug, and Drupal.
Windows Live Sync
With the arrival of Live Mesh (see my preview) this year, Microsoft's online sync story has gotten a bit complicated. The company had previously offered a service called Windows Live FolderShare, which syncs folders of content from PC to PC, automatically. But the folder share feature in Live Mesh appears to be quite similar, though it adds the unique wrinkle of a Web-based desktop where folders are also synced by default. So which service is going to continue going forward? Should we use FolderShare or Live Mesh?
Well, for starters, Windows Live FolderShare is being renamed to Windows Live Sync and while that capability is not part of the first beta version of Windows Live Wave 3, it will be included in future versions. If that's not enough of a clue as to which you should be using, consider the following bit of comparison that Ryan provided me earlier this month.
"Live Mesh is an evolving platform that will enable those anywhere-access scenarios we discussed across applications that Microsoft and third parties will build," he told me. "Windows Live Sync and other Windows Live products will take advantage of the Live Mesh platform in the future. But today, Live Mesh folder sync is just a sample app, a proof of concept application to test the platform. But when Live Mesh is ready, Windows Live will take advantage of that platform."
There you go. Armed with that knowledge, I've moved from Live Mesh to FolderShare, and I'll upgrade to Windows Live Sync when a working version exists. I advise you do the same.
Windows Live Toolbar
While I've never been a big fan of browser toolbars, the new version of the Windows Live Toolbar is the one Wave 3 offering that looks good out of the gate with the new Windows 7-style toolbar look and feel. This is especially true if you're using Internet Explorer 8 Beta 2, which has also been visually tweaked a bit to look more at home in Microsoft's next desktop OS. That said, there's not much too it: You get the redundant search box, this time hardwired to Live Search (naturally), text-buttons for Mail, Photos, Calendar, and MSN, and graphical buttons for Live Search Maps, MSNBC, and Windows Live Translator. Additional buttons can be added via a Web site, but the quality, as always, is all over the map.
Windows Live Toolbar isn't as busy as most browser toolbars but is still of dubious value.
The toolbar keeps you logged onto your Windows Live ID, as you'd expect, but doesn't accommodate multiple Live IDs, which would be nice.
Windows Live Writer
Microsoft's surprisingly successful Windows Live Writer is a blog editor, which doesn't sound like much, but it works amazingly well and does so with a wide range of blog types, not just the software giant's own Windows Live Spaces. The new version picks up the new Wave 3 look and feel and a few important new features, including better picture editing and publishing, and a way to publish videos directly from your PC to MSN Soapbox or YouTube. It's a nice update, and an application I actually use every single day.
Now you can upload videos directly to popular video services like YouTube, directly from Windows Live Writer.
Windows Live Family Safety
I don't actually use Windows Live Family Safety, but Microsoft says that it has improved and simplified the sign-up process, configuration, and management of this service, which helps parents manage their kids' activity online.
That said, Windows Live Family Safety, while free, comes with some fairly onerous setup requirements. Each child you manage must have a properly configured Windows Live ID, for example. You can create these IDs during Setup, but it's a bit much.
Office Outlook Connector
While Office Outlook Connector is new to the so-called Windows Live suite in Wave 3, this software has of course been available separately for many years. It allows you to access your Windows Live Hotmail account information (hotmail.com, live.com, msn.com) from with Microsoft's popular Outlook application. The latest version adds support for Windows Live Calendar, which includes scheduling and to-do information.
The version of the Office Connector included with the Wave 3 suite is 12.1. It supports both Outlook 2003 and 2007, and because it was initially released on its own back in July, I've been using it for quite a while. It works as expected, and setup is as easier as ever: Simply provide your Hotmail-based email address, password, and name, and you'll be up and running after a restart (of Outlook, not Windows).
The Outlook Connector now brings the full Windows Live experience to Microsoft Outlook 2003 or 2007.
Those familiar with Outlook will appreciate how well Windows Live is integrated into the application. Your Hotmail email will appear in the Mail view as its own account and, yes, you can add multiple Live accounts if you have them. Windows Live Contacts appear in Outlook's Contacts view. Windows Live Calendar--slowly at first, but then at expected speeds--appears in Calendar view. It even picks up the Windows Live Calendar To-Do List information, putting it (correctly) in Outlook's Tasks view.
This integration continues beyond mere support for Microsoft's Live services, which should be considered just the baseline for this sort of functionality. Instead, Outlook users are treated to the full Outlook experience, and what we're given is something very similar to the experience of using Exchange with Outlook. All of your Live-based data is used to populate Outlook's To-Do Bar with pertinent and interactive information, for example. And a new Outlook Connector toolbar--oddly placed in the lower right of the application window for some reason--provides at-a-glance access to your Live.com account information and server status.
While I expect that Microsoft doesn't offer a transparent way to make your Live.com account the default in Outlook for a reason--most likely that so many users will be adding this personal account alongside previously-configured work accounts--I think they're missing an opportunity here. But if you do wish to use only your Windows Live account with Outlook, or to use it as your primary account--thus ensuring that your Windows Live email, contacts, calendar, and to-do/tasks information is always the default in Outlook's respective views--I've got some good news for you: It's possible. It's just not obvious. To make a Windows Live account the default in Outlook, navigate to Tools, Account Settings. Then, in the Account Settings dialog, navigate to the Data Files tab, select your Windows Live account and then click Set As Default. Then, restart Outlook. (Don't do this if you own an iPhone and sync with Outlook, however, as Apple's sync software is incompatible with this configuration.)
A strategy for the future
With Microsoft pulling bundled applications out of Windows and into Windows Live and moving to a pervasive new Web platform that's current called Live Mesh, these are interesting times. But Ryan told me that these changes, while momentous, are really just a logical next step given its moves with Windows Live in the past.
"Windows Live completes the experience in Windows," he said. "It's rich applications and leading edge services making Windows the best platform for broad experiences that move far beyond the PC."
Regarding the debundling of Windows Movie Maker and other applications, Ryan said that while Windows gets a major update every few years at best, Microsoft can rev Windows Live every single year, often every quarter. "We need a vehicle for getting the latest and greatest out there," he noted. "Windows is not a great ship vehicle for this kind of stuff. With Windows Live, we can update the software and services every year, some services every three months. It's more agile."
"Windows 7 will not include Windows Mail, Windows Photo Gallery, or Windows Movie Maker," he confirmed. "These applications will be delivered with Windows Live instead. There's a shared desire to say, let's win consumers together. "
The Windows Live Wave 3 application suite is in great shape so far, except for Movie Maker, about which I have grave concerns. I'll reserve judgment until the final versions are ready, however, as some strengths and new capabilities of these applications will only become obvious when new and improved Wave 3 services appear in the coming weeks and months. And let's not forget PDC, Microsoft's developer-oriented trade show, due in late October: At this event, Microsoft will reveal details of its strategies for both Windows 7 and Live Mesh, two platforms that are intimately tied to Windows Live 3. But it's already clear that Microsoft is heading down the right path with Windows Live. With Wave 3, it just keeps getting better.