Microsoft has recently made two quiet, small, but important updates to its online calendaring effort, Windows Live Calendar. These changes include an update to its Web-based Live Calendar, which is typically accessed via the Hotmail Web site, and a new beta version of the Outlook Connector software, which allows you to access Windows Live Hotmail, Contacts, and, now, Calendar via Microsoft's popular Outlook application.

This is a big deal. With Google seemingly owning the Web-based email and personal information management (PIM) space with Gmail and Google Calendar, and Apple touting its so-called "push" capabilities via MobileMe, it appears that Microsoft's own cloud-based efforts for consumes have stalled. But these recent updates put Microsoft right back in the race again. And though neither technology is anywhere near complete, I think it's time to take a quick look. If you were looking for a Microsoft consumer-oriented cloud computing platform for email and PIM, this is where it starts.

Windows Live email, contacts, and calendar

Just so we're clear, Microsoft has long offered Web-based email, contacts, and calendar services via Hotmail. With the transition to a new platform and new Windows Live branding, however, Microsoft made its Web-based email and PIM solution more competitive.

It began in May 2007 with the release of Windows Live Hotmail (see my review), which featured dramatically improved Hotmail email and contacts management. Conspicuously missing at the time was a new version of Windows Live Calendar.

Microsoft also shipped its Windows Live Mail and Outlook Connector 2007 software (see my review), which provide free Windows-based email/contacts client and Outlook connectivity, respectively. However, because the Windows Live Calendar component remained incomplete, neither offered any form of calendar sync.

Windows Live Calendar: The evolution continues

Microsoft has been working on the current (still in beta) version of Windows Live Calendar since last year. I provided some first impressions back in late 2007, noting that Microsoft had "nailed the basics." But all-important calendar subscriptions were nowhere to be found, a curious omission for a standards-based calendar service.

Sometime in the recent past--and I say "sometime" because, let's face it, few people are using this thing in its current raw state and, more egregiously, Microsoft hasn't been very good about trumpeting the important changes it is making--something changed. Suddenly, it was possible to subscribe to Web-based calendars, just like you can in more mature services like Google Calendar and in desktop applications like iCal (Mac OS X) and Windows Calendar (Windows Vista).

This makes Windows Live Calendar far more complete. Now, if you want to subscribe to, say, the 2008 Boston Red Sox schedule, you can do so. Or, if you're attempting a move from a previous calendaring service, like Google Calendar, you can subscribe to that and leave it on and visible until the move to the new calendar is complete.

What's missing, curiously, is the ability to subscribe to Windows Live Calendars with other Web-based services like Google Calendar, though the existence of a publishing UI, with XML, HTML, and ICAL output options suggests it will work someday. When you attempt to subscribe to a Windows Live Calendar based calendar in Google Calendar, you receive an error message explaining that "robots.txt prevents us from crawling the url." So Microsoft is explicitly blocking this for now. You have to assume it's a temporary situation.

Outlook Connector 12 beta

On the desktop side, Microsoft has finally released a beta version of its free Outlook Connector 12.1 software, which allows you for the first time to utilize Windows Live Calendar, as well as the previously-available Windows Live Hotmail email and contacts, inside of Microsoft Outlook 2003 or 2007. (So far I've only tested it with Outlook 2007. And hopefully an updated version of Windows Live Mail, with Live Calendar support, is forthcoming as well.)

This is a big deal a well, as it sort-of completes the picture for Windows Live email and PIM management. Microsoft now offers cloud-based services, via the Web versions of Windows Live Hotmail (email), Contacts (contacts management) and Calendar (scheduling). And it offers desktop interfaces for these services via Windows Live Mail, which is free but doesn't (yet) support Calendar, and Microsoft Outlook, which costs $99 but is very popular.

On the mobility side, Microsoft provides interfaces for Outlook- and Windows Live-based email, contacts and calendaring via Windows Mobile, of course. And I think we can expect to see these services being "pushed" (ahem) to the iPhone sometime this year as well, which would really open up the market for this device, given the 300 million people that access Windows Live Hotmail every day.

Final thoughts

Sometimes the most important software updates come unannounced and unbidden. And while the recent updates to Windows Live Calendar and Outlook Connector were not accompanied by press releases or blog posts, they are indeed quite important. On the Windows Live Calendar side, Microsoft's cloud-based calendaring solution is >this< close to running with the big dogs now, and my guess is that the software giant will unleash the hounds, so to speak, soon. Likewise, for those waiting for the Hotmail Full Meal Deal via Outlook, the new beta release of Outlook Connector 12 closes the gap, finally adding long-awaited support for Windows Live Calendar to the mix. Suddenly, those living in the Windows Live world are on their way to becoming first class cloud computing citizens. It can't happen quickly enough.