In January 2006, I wrote a Windows Live Preview in which I highlighted Microsoft's November 2005 announcement about the services and provided some historical context to Microsoft's decision to reel in most of its Web services and products under the Windows brand. Looking over that article now, it's stunning how much has changed in the intervening year. What's even more stunning, perhaps, is how much things are going to change yet again going forward. Today, I'd like to discuss Microsoft's evolving plans for Windows Live, and examine how the software giant will, hopefully, meet the needs of its customers by supplying a sensible set of services that work where you do: On the Web, on Windows, and on mobile devices.

A look back

As you may recall, I was nervous about Microsoft's decision in late 2005 to rebrand most of its MSN services as Windows Live because that mean that the MSN group, which was both physically and ideologically distant from the slow-moving Windows division of the time, would be pulled in-house. That, I opined, could have only two possible results: Either the MSN guys would inspire the Windows group to ship products on a timelier basis, or the MSN group would become saddled by the inefficient of the Windows group and slow down so much as to be ineffective.

Fortunately, neither of those scenarios played out, possibly through sheer chance: Instead, Microsoft put the hyper-efficient (and hyper-secretive) Steven Sinofksy in charge of Windows development, ending any delay issues there. And the MSN/Windows Live guys seem to have retained their independence thanks in part to Microsoft's US antitrust consent decree: Whereas the company might previously have attempted to directly integrate products like Windows Live Messenger into Windows, now they are optional downloads and part of an evolving suite of products that enhances Windows only when explicitly chosen by users. In short, that problem was solved before it became a problem.

Anyway, Windows Live as envisioned a year ago was separated into three technological and logical chunks, for lack of a better word: The Information Network, the People Network, and the Business Network. By January 2006, the company was already describing these concepts a bit differently than it had at the November 2005 launch, and of course things have evolved since then as well. (We'll get to that.) Back then, the so-called Information Network included such things as MSN/Live Search, MSN's mapping services, and even the Web-based gadgets that one can add to the Live portal. The People Network was typified by Messenger, but also included the integrated contacts management infrastructure. And the Ad Network powered Live's ad-based services, and included the Ad Center technologies.

Naturally, most Live services and products aren't siloed into a single network. While Messenger clearly falls into the People Network because its used to communicate with people you care about, it also displays advertisements and integrates with Live Search technologies. Integration, I was told, was the key to much of what Microsoft was (and is) trying to accomplish with Windows Live.

MSN, a year ago, would retain the MSN.com Web portal, the MSN broadband and narrowband Internet services, and various Web-based entertainment content services around topics like sports, finance, or cars. Since then, Microsoft has also expanded MSN with new services, like the MSN Soapbox video-sharing services.

Too, Microsoft has dramatically expanded the available products and services it offers through Windows Live. In some ways, it may have expanded too much: I consider myself to be pretty plugged into this whole environment, but I'm often astonished by the sheer number of offerings Microsoft makes available through Windows Live. I have trouble keeping up with it all.

On a related note, the independent nature of Windows Live has allowed Microsoft to rapidly release and update its offerings. While some mature and arguably mission-critical services like Windows Live Hotmail did indeed require years of work, most Windows Live products and services are rapidly updated over time, providing consumers with an amazing array of ever-increasing functionality and, where appropriate, integration. There's a lot of work left to do, of course. Maybe there always will be.

Now what?

This brings us to mid-2007. As of this writing, you can see 14 beta products listed on the Windows Live Betas Web site; these are the products that have not been finalized and will likely be updated quite rapidly. There are also scores of other products and services that are now shipping in finalized form, though of course there's a fine line between perpetual beta and "finalized" when it comes to Web-based applications. These include such things as Windows Live Hotmail, Live Search for Mobile, Windows Live OneCare, Windows Live Hotmail Mobile, and many more.

The big issue, of course, is: Where is all of this heading? In a briefing last week, Microsoft senior director Dave Fortin told me that the company is taking a five year approach to Windows Live, and trying to anticipate how consumer use of Web-based services will change in the ensuing half-decade. In 2002, for example, most consumers accessed the company's Web-based services solely from the Web. But by 2012, its customers will be accessing those services via PCs, phones, and various mobile devices, and of course you can see that transition in effect today. The big changes, in my mind, are that consumers are now starting to expect to access their online information from many devices, and not just from a PC, and that they will partake in a growing number of social networks online going forward, and not limit themselves to a single service.

To meet these needs, Microsoft now sees Windows Live as an essential suite of software services for individuals around the world, designed to help them stay connected and protected, built on the leading platform for developers, advertisers, and syndication partners. A lot of that mission statement will likely sound familiar. But I'd like to point out a few new bits. Notice the use of the word suite in there: Going forward, Microsoft intends to offer integrated suites of software services, via native PC applications, mobile devices, and the Web, to allow consumers to access Windows Live services from anywhere at any time. Also, the company is now promoting Windows Live as a platform that third-party developers can build off of. This is very important for many reasons, not the least of which is that Google's openness to third party extensions has played a huge role in that company's amazing successes online. Microsoft can't expect Windows Live to succeed if Microsoft is the only company playing in the sandbox.

Like the previous vision for Windows Live, today's rendition can be viewed as a multi-tier platform, though the orientation is logically quite different. Microsoft sees the Windows Live platform as being customer centric. Around these customers are those three networks, now recast as Communications, Community and Interests, and Information and Devices, and a set of seamless experiences that bridge Windows-based PCs, Windows Mobile phones, other devices and clients, other mobile phones, and the Web browser.

The platform, such as it is today, is actually doing pretty well, despite Google's near-dominance in search. Windows Live boasts hugely popular email (Hotmail), instant messaging (Messenger) and portal (MSN/Windows Live) solutions. "We have a lot of assets with Hotmail and Messenger," Fortin told me. "450 million people access our networks every single day. Plus, we have millions of happy and satisfied Windows and Office users. We will help them bridge these networks."

The platform as a whole integrates with and works best with Windows- and Windows Mobile-based solutions, of course, and Microsoft's OneCare security offerings really set Windows Live apart from anything available on competing Web services platforms.

Looking ahead, Microsoft is working on the next generation version of Windows Live, which it sees delivering as a set of software and services suites, one each for the browser, Windows PCs, and Windows Mobile-based devices. The browser suite will provide common branding and user experiences, and will work in both traditional, PC-based browsers as well as mobile phone browsers. The PC-based suite will include updated versions of Windows Live Messenger (version 8.5), Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Windows Live Writer (blog posting) and the Outlook Connector, which enables Hotmail/MSN/Live.com mail access via Microsoft's premier email client. The non-Web suites will include an integrated installer, though we won't see that until a public beta late this summer.

As for MSN, yes, it continues, but now it's all about entertainment content. "We think of Windows Live as productivity, information, sharing, and social networking," Fortin said. "MSN is about entertainment and content."

Finally, a few specifics

A first look at some of the components of these Windows Live suites are available now to about 5000 private beta testers, though Microsoft tells me it will broaden the betas over time. (See below for scheduling.) The first of these is Windows Live Photo Gallery Beta, an update to the Windows Photo Gallery application that Microsoft provides with Windows Vista. (This is the second but not last time that Microsoft has obsoleted a Windows Vista application with a free download: Its recently released Windows Live Mail application replaces Vista's Windows Mail.)

Windows Live Photo Gallery is a true subset (and replacement) of Windows Photo Gallery and includes a few major improvements. First, it will work on Windows XP (with Service Pack 2) as well as Windows Vista. Second, it will include a new Share toolbar button that will allow you to easily share photos online via Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live Hotmail, or other email applications. (Another new toolbar button, Sign On, lets you optionally sign into your Windows Live ID from within the application.) Third, you can create a panorama by right-clicking a collection of photos and choosing "Create panoramic stitch." (This last feature was previously made available in Digital Image Suite 2006, Microsoft's recently-cancelled commercial photo editing and management suite. Photo Gallery and Windows Live Photo Gallery are based on the Digital Image Library application that was included in that product.)

"After Vista was code complete, the Photo Gallery team kept working on the application," Fortin told me. "Shipping updates through Windows Live lets use ship more releases more frequently." This is an approach Microsoft will take with many Windows components over time, though of course some pieces will always be updated only with actual Windows updates. And of course, a lot of the new functionality in Windows Live Photo Gallery is based around Windows Live integration. As Fortin noted, you can post photos to your Spaces-based blog in just 2 clicks. "Only 23 percent of people online are sharing photos beyond email attachments," he said. "That's a huge unmet need. There are hundreds of thousands of photos on many PCs out there. But they're hard to share, and sending them via email is just not practical."

The second newly-announced service is the long-awaited Windows Live Folders (codenamed Sky Drive), which will likely be renamed before its final release. Like Windows Live Photo Gallery, Folders is available now only in a private beta, but it will be opened up to the public over time. What Microsoft is offering here is 512 MB of online storage for free, and the ability to subscribe to more storage for a fee. (Pricing has not yet been set.) You can upload individual files of up to 50 MB, I'm told.

In a demo of the service, I saw a simple Web portal that provides you with three main storage areas: Personal Folders, for private files; Shared Folders, for files you share with friends, and Public Folders, for files you want to share with anyone. Most of this should be self-explanatory, but the Share Folders bit is interesting because you will be able to share files with anyone, including those who opt not to create Windows Live ID (formerly Passport) accounts. Kudos for that.

Within each area, you will see links for Adding files, creating new folders, sending files or folders to others as a link, and folder options. Then, there is a list of shared files and folders to peruse or download. It is exactly what it sounds like, in other words.

Scheduling

Microsoft announced the Windows Live Photo Gallery and Windows Live Folders private betas today, on June 27, 2007. Later this summer, the company will offer the full software suites for beta testing, which will come with an integrated installer. (There will also be a minor Windows Live Spaces update at that time.) In late summer or early fall 2007, the company plans to disclose its final release plans and open up testing to the public. The next generation Windows Live platform will ship in fall or winter 2007, Microsoft tells me, and be accompanied by a consumer marketing program.

Looking even further down the road, Microsoft plans to expand Windows Live so that the various products and services integrate even better with each other and with Windows- and Windows Mobile-based systems. They will expand their community-based offering so that consumers can create networks of actual friends, co-workers, and even friends-of-friends, in seamless and useful ways. They intend to bridge the gaps between home, work school, parents and children, gamers, and other markets and provide solutions that make sense for customers regardless of their needs. And Windows Live will be opened up to third party developers so that they can build off of Microsoft's platform. Microsoft, I'm told, is now a "software + services" company, and not just a software maker. The transition will be time-consuming, but is ongoing.

Final thoughts

There's still work to do. Two examples: Microsoft is wrestling with how it will offer premium, paid versions of some services and possibly combine storage assets from services like Windows Live Spaces and Windows Live Folders. And while you can customize many Windows Live Web-based services and PC-based applications with color schemes, there's no centralized way to configure a color scheme so that what you see is always consistently themed; instead, you have to manually configure this feature every time you log on to a new service. Over time, of course, these things will come together. But from what I can see today, Microsoft appears to be headed in the right direction, though any news about Live Search was conspicuously absent from our talk. Expect more information later in the year, but in the meantime, do take a look at what Microsoft is offering here. The Windows Live services often get lost in more high-profile news about Windows Vista, Microsoft's efforts competing with Google, and other topics. And that's a shame. Because the company has created some truly compelling services here and they're just getting better all the time.