It's an information explosion the likes of which I haven't seen in a long, long time. In fact, even this past month's revelations about Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 are dwarfed by the deluge of information about the Windows Live Wave 3 series of applications, services, and other products. I like to think of myself as being up on what Microsoft has coming down the road, but if I'm confused by this stuff, I can only imagine what it looks like to the average Windows user. So in an attempt to clarify exactly what it is that Microsoft is releasing through Windows Live Wave 3, and why, and when, I'm preparing this document. As I write these words, I don't yet know how complicated it's going to get. But I have my worries. Yeah, I do.

Stepping back, let's first establish where we're at now. Microsoft began releasing various applications and online services via its MSN unit well over a decade ago, and in 2005, the company announced that it was consolidating many of these applications and services under the then-new Windows Live brand. (See my Windows Live Preview for the gory details.) At this time, Windows Live (the former MSN) was subsumed by the Windows division at Microsoft, and this hierarchy continues to this day. Another distinction also continues to do this day: The aim of Windows Live, still, is to extend the Windows user experience or, in 2008 parlance, to "light up" Windows, and make it a better, more all-encompassing experience.

The distinction between Windows (the OS) and Windows Live (the online services and Windows applications) can be boiled down to one simple fact: Whereas new versions of Windows ship, at most, every 2-3 years, new Windows Live applications and services can be rolled out on an ongoing basis. So the stuff that's in Windows Live is, by its nature, either online or is something that would benefit from more frequent updating than what is possible when it ships inside of Windows.

To the user, the distinction between the two also extends to the optional nature of Windows Live: As a Windows user, you can choose to adopt various Windows Live products and services, but that's your choice. These things will not ship in Windows whether you want them or not. And Microsoft hopes that by making these products and services valuable and highly integrated, with Windows, other Windows Live solutions, and even with third party solutions--that you will indeed choose Windows Live. In other words, Windows Live will sink or swim on its own merits. Well, pretty much: Obviously, the product line benefits somewhat from deep integration with Windows and Microsoft's ability to tell the integration story between the two platforms.

Over the years, Windows Live has evolved a little bit as Microsoft has fine-tuned its story. Today, the software giant divides Windows Live, neatly, into two easily differentiated camps. There is the application software suite, a set of Windows applications that was once separate (see my article, Windows Live 2007: A Look at the Next Generation, for details of that era) and has since been consolidated into an integrated experience. (See my Windows Live Suite Review.) Now, Microsoft has finally branded this application suite. It's called Windows Live Essentials, and you can read about the first beta of the third generation, or "Wave 3" version of this suite, in my article, A Look at the Windows Live Wave 3 Applications. Windows Live Essentials is in public beta as I write this, but it's not feature-complete. In fact, there's a lot more coming in the next few weeks via a near-final Release Candidate (RC) version of the suite. I will discuss all of those coming changes in this article.


The Windows Live Essentials applications will be overhauled in the coming weeks.

On the other side of the equation, we have the Windows Live online services, or what Microsoft (confusingly, I think) describes simply as Windows Live. The Windows Live services consist of a number of old favorites like Hotmail (now called Windows Live Hotmail, naturally), as well as a host of other services. The Wave 3 release of the Windows Live services started rolling out to users a few months ago when Windows Live Calendar and then Windows Live Hotmail were both updated. But Wave 3 won't be complete until early 2009, and between now and then, Microsoft will ship an unprecedented number of new online services. It will also be updating every single existing service, often in very dramatic ways. This is a huge, huge release, and yes, I will be discussing all those coming changes in this article as well.


All existing Windows Live services are being dramatically overhauled and many new services are coming online.

OK, that's the backgrounder. We've got Windows Live Essentials (applications) and Windows Live (services). Both are being dramatically expanded over the next few months. Both are being made to work with each other, and with third party services, in exciting new ways. Now, it's time to jump in and see whether it's even possible to accurately catalog Windows Live Wave 3 in a way that actually makes sense. I'm going to try.