Suddenly, it's all coming together. Certainly, it took long enough: From the moment that Microsoft first announced its MSN online service back in the mid-1990's to the confusing LIVE strategy announcement of two years ago, it's never been clear that Microsoft "got" the Internet and how it could adapt its own products to work in this brave new world. These days, the company describes its online efforts as "software + services," the idea being that traditional desktop and server software--i.e. the increasingly irrelevant way that Microsoft made its billions in the first place--will be augmented, not replaced, by a new generation of Web-based services. Companies like Google, Yahoo!, and numerous tiny startups no-one's ever heard of, may disagree with this worldview, but then they don't have Microsoft's decades of experience and installed base bolstering their positions either.

This past week, Microsoft finally put its money where its mouth is, releasing what the company is cryptically describing as "Windows Live," despite the fact that the term Windows Live has already been used to describe a much wider range of products and services than what we'll be discussing in this review. I think of the products I'm reviewing here as the Windows Live suite, and I'll continue to use that term throughout this review in order to differentiate these products--which are downloaded and installed locally on Windows-based PCs--from the multitude of other Windows Live offerings. But regardless of the confusing terminology, one thing is very clear: Microsoft's software + plus services strategy is now a reality.

What's really stunning about all this is that it took a decade of antitrust battles in the US and Europe to push Microsoft over the edge and really embrace this strategy. One gets the feeling that many of the Windows Live products in the suite would have simply shipped as part of Windows had they been created a decade ago. But this time around, they're all optional and available for free on the Web. Even more impressive, perhaps, none of the Windows Live suite products are limited to just Windows Vista users: Microsoft has made them all available to the several hundred million people running its previous client OS, Windows XP, as well. This, too, is something that would have been inconceivable to the Microsoft of several years ago, and these products would all have been selling points for its latest OS version only. Say what you will about those overly-aggressive antitrust regulators, but they seem to have at least pushed Microsoft towards a strategy that makes sense for both the company and its customers.

So what are we talking about here, exactly? As I understand it, all of Microsoft's various online products and services are being marketed with the LIVE moniker. Under this LIVE umbrella are such things as the MSN online content services, the Xbox Live gaming service, the Zune Social media service, the Office Live productivity services, and, of course, Windows Live, which is the broadest and deepest offering of the bunch. Windows Live has historically consisted mostly of Web-based online services, such things as Hotmail (now called Windows Live Hotmail), and Spaces (a blog service), as well as Windows-based applications like Windows Live Messenger (instant messaging), and Windows Live Mail (a desktop email client). There are a stunning number of these products currently available in various stages of completion, and keeping track of all of them would require a finer mind than mine. Long story short: The Windows Live team has to be one of the busiest groups at Microsoft. It's fairly astonishing.

What I'm calling the Windows Live suite is Microsoft's first integrated set of downloadable Windows Live applications. It's available via a simple, single installer, and includes a number of Windows applications which, quite naturally, integrate with free Windows Live services back in the cloud. That's where the "software + services" name comes from. While it's possible to use many of these applications in isolation as normal, standalone Windows applications, each becomes more useful and valuable when used with various online services, including, surprisingly, many not made by Microsoft.

It's also worth noting that Microsoft has "released" (or at least taken out of beta) or updated a number of Windows Live services in concert with the release of this first Windows Live suite. I won't be reviewing these services here, specifically, but they include Windows Live Events (new), Windows Live for Windows Mobile (dramatically updated), Windows Live Hotmail (updated), and Windows Live Spaces (updated). In addition, other Windows Live products and services are waiting in the wings, including Windows Live OneCare 2, which was recently finalized, and the Windows Live SkyDrive online storage service, among many others.

Finally, I should note that this review is an updated version of my Windows Live Suite Preview, which was first published over two months ago. I've struggled in the past to come up with new ways to cover products I'd previously covered extensively during the beta period, but clearly there are only so many ways to describe a product. This review has been updated to reflect the final shipping Windows Live suite.

Installing Windows Live suite

With the Windows Live suite, Microsoft is making its integrated set of Windows applications available via a single installer from the Windows Live Web site. Previously, you could obtain beta and shipping versions of these and other Windows Live products and services individually. But Microsoft decided to bundle these solutions together in a way that would expose users to new services while still leaving them in charge of what they do and do not download and install on their system. If there's a downside to this approach, it's that you can't just download, say, the Windows Live Photo Gallery application as a standalone download. Some will find that inconvenient, but I think the majority of Windows Live customers will find this arrangement is simpler and more sensible than hunting around the Web for the applications they want.

"We've been talking about integrated experiences for a while now," Microsoft lead product manager Larry Grothaus told me during a briefing earlier this fall. "This is the fruition of that vision, and we're providing more value to customers who use Windows every day."

The Windows Live unified installer actually lives partially in the cloud: You instantiate it from a Web page, choose the products and services you want there, and only then is a Windows-based installer downloaded. That installer is largely hands-off, however, taking its cue from the choices you made in the Web-based part of the installer.

From the Windows Live Web, you can now learn about all of the Windows Live services that are currently available via the installer. It's quite a list too, and includes such things as Windows Live Mail (a desktop-based email client), Messenger (a desktop-based IM client), Toolbar (an Internet Explorer add-on), Spaces (a Web-based blogging service), Photo Gallery (a desktop-based photo and video management application), Writer (a desktop-based blog editor), OneCare Family Safety (a desktop-based family security solution), and Windows Live Mobile (for Windows Mobile-based smart phones), Hotmail (Web-based email), and Events (event planning and memory sharing).

When you click the Get Windows Live - FREE button, you're brought to the first page of the installer, titled Connect and Share Anywhere. Here, you will want to be careful. You can choose between the six desktop-based products mentioned above (Windows Live Mail, Messenger, Photo Gallery, Writer, Toolbar, and OneLive Family Safety), five of which are pre-selected. You can also choose to configure a few basic settings, including changing your browser search default (well, IE only) to Live.com, setting your browser (again, just IE) home page to MSN.com, and helping Microsoft by allowing it to collect anonymous information about your installation experience. All of these settings are selected by default, so read carefully.

Once you've made your choices, click the Install button and the client portion of the installer will download to your hard drive and execute. It will list the products you've chosen to install on the top, with those you have not on the bottom, providing you with a chance to change your mind. The installer will first check to determine if you already have any of the products you selected, and will then install only those that are new or available in newer versions. (Those who participated in the Windows Live beta will see that new versions of each client application are available.) The length of installation will depend on the number of applications you chose and, I've found, on the number of Windows Live applications you already have installed.

As the applications are downloaded and installed one by one, the Installer will highlight those that are ready and can be started, so you won't need to wait for the Installer to complete. That's a nice touch, but unlike with the Google Pack (see my review), the integrated installer doesn't provide any sort of servicing functionality. As these products are updated, you will have to rely on their own built-in updating mechanisms or, presumably, an eventual integration with Windows Update.

One the installer is completed, you can click the links of any application you'd like to start immediately or just click the Close button and then find the applications in your Start Menu as needed. As you might expect, Microsoft has created a new Windows Live Start Menu group that contains links to all of the installed applications. (And since the applications all start with the words "Windows Live," they're easy to find with the Start Menu Search feature in Windows Vista.)

The applications

Let's take a look at each of the Windows Live suite applications and services.

Windows Live Mail

Windows Live integration: Windows Live Hotmail, Contacts, and Messenger.
Non-Microsoft integration: Any POP3 and IMAP email services, RSS feeds, USENET
Customization: User interface color.
My rating:

Based as it is on Outlook Express and Windows Mail , Windows Live Mail (which at one point was to have been called Windows Live Mail Desktop) doesn't do much to overcome its somewhat unimpressive heritage: It looks a little bit too much like Outlook Express for my tastes, especially the nearly identical Options dialog. I'm told, however, that this is by design: Hundreds of millions of people still use Outlook Express, and Microsoft wanted an updated version of this application that was more secure and more functional. Consider the job done.

Windows Live Mail is a solid email client, with support for multiple email accounts--Hotmail, Live.com, and MSN, yes, but also any POP3 or IMAP accounts you may have. Those who do opt to use Windows Live Mail as a front-end for their Microsoft-oriented email accounts will see a number of integration benefits with such products as Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Spaces. Additionally, Windows Live Mail includes some nice modern additions like instant search and RSS feed subscriptions. (There's also the increasingly irrelevant USENET newsgroup support that dates back to the earliest days of Microsoft's Internet Mail and News products.)

One thing that's missing is support for Windows Live Calendar, which is currently in beta. Contacts integration with Windows Live Contacts works as you'd expect, though I'm confused why you can't modify contacts' pictures in Windows Live Mail. (This appears to be a limitation of the Windows Live Contacts service, not WL Mail.)

If you're a fan of Outlook Express or Windows Mail and/or a heavy user of Microsoft's online services, Windows Live Mail is a compelling and obvious upgrade, especially for those who don't own the latest version of Outlook. Those who are a bit put off by these consumer email applications--and I place myself in this category--should try to look beyond Windows Live Mail's humble origins. This is an excellent email client with a modern feature set, and I find it less exotic and eclectic than other free email applications like Mozilla Thunderbird.

Windows Live Messenger 8.5

Windows Live integration: Windows Live Hotmail, Spaces, Search, and Xbox Live.
Non-Microsoft integration: Yahoo Messenger, eBay.
Customization: User interface color, application chrome can be enabled/disabled.
My rating:

I've been using Windows Live Messenger and its predecessors for so long now I can hardly remember when it all started. That said, my opinion on such things might not be particularly valuable: As an increasingly cranky and old guy, instant messaging (IM) to me is just another interruption when I'm trying to get work done.

Don't let my negativity get in the way, however. For what it is, Messenger 8.5 is a fine IM client, and of course its big attraction is that it integrates with other Windows Live services. The first version of Messenger to sport the Windows Live moniker was version 8, and that shipped in August 2006 (see my review). That version was a major release, with PC-to-PC calling, sharing folders, and the beginnings of the Windows Live integration stuff we now take for granted.

As its version number suggests, Messenger 8.5 isn't a major update, so it's full of mostly subtle changes. For example, this version adds a new look and feel with a dramatically refined interface across the board. Nothing dramatic.

Since you'll need a Windows Live ID (formerly Passport) account, you will gain access to your Hotmail-based email, Spaces-based blog, Windows Mobile-based portable device, and the like, all in obvious and discoverable ways, through Messenger. You can search the Web with Live.com, make phone calls, invite multiple people to chats, and perform high-quality video conferences. Messenger is increasingly becoming Microsoft's desktop-based, consumer-oriented communications hub (a role that Office Live Communicator plays for knowledge workers). And this, ultimately, is why I continue to use Messenger despite my general lack of regard for IM: When you need to get in touch with someone quickly, this is a simple and effective way to do so.

Windows Live Photo Gallery

Windows Live integration: Windows Live Messenger, Spaces, and MSN Soapbox.
Non-Microsoft integration: Flickr, Apple QuickTime format.
Customization: None.
My rating:

Windows Live Photo Gallery is the most intriguing application in the Windows Live suite, from my perspective. It's unusual, but not unique, in that it is one of the few Windows Live applications that is an upgrade for and replacement of an application that ships as part of Windows Vista. (The other is Windows Live Mail, which replaces Vista's Windows Mail.) Likewise, Windows Live Photo Gallery works in Windows XP too, which is neat as its predecessor was Vista-only.

So I'm relieved to see that we won't have to wait for a Photo Gallery update until the next major Windows release. But it's not just that: Windows Live Photo Gallery also expands on its predecessor in interesting and useful ways in two ways. First, there are traditional product enhancements, like the photo stitching feature, Adjust Detail/Sharpen photo fix functionality, and QuickTime movie support. Second, Windows Live Photo Gallery adds features that integrate, go figure, with the appropriate Windows Live services. More amazing, perhaps, Photo Gallery also works with third party services, too. So you can upload photos to your Windows Live Spaces blog or to Yahoo's Flickr service, and upload videos to MSN Soapbox. These actions are all performed via an obvious Publish button.

Unlike most other Windows Live suite applications, Windows Live Photo Gallery doesn't offer color scheme customization. It's also unable to easily resize photos. Those are curious omissions in an otherwise well-designed and extremely useful application. Indeed, Windows Live Photo Gallery is now my primary photo management solution. I can't think of higher praise.

Windows Live Writer

Windows Live integration: Windows Live Spaces.
Non-Microsoft integration: Every major blogging service on earth, Google PicasaWeb.
Customization: User interface color.
My rating:

There are basically two groups of bloggers out there today, hard-core and occasionally high profile niche bloggers--those who blog about blogging and other technologies, or perhaps politics--and normal people, those who blog about their cats, their vacations, and their families. These two groups don't have a lot in common beyond the fact that they can both publish content online via blogs, and one might think that Microsoft's blog editor, Windows Live Writer, would target the latter group rather than the former, given the audience Windows Live is trying to reach. That assumption is, of course, correct. But something rather interesting has happened since Microsoft shipped the first public beta version of Writer many moons ago: The blogoratti got its hands on the tool and decided they actually liked it too. And now this unassuming application has achieved a rare crossover success that touches on both sides of the fence.

The very existence of Windows Live Writer is somewhat astonishing given that Microsoft already makes Word, the best text processor on earth, and the latest version of that product, Word 2007, including pretty extensive blogging capabilities already. But here it is, and unlike Word, Windows Live Writer is free. And you know what? It's actually pretty sweet. The UI is attractive and the feature set is amazingly complete. It supports a wide range of blogging services, though of course it works best with Microsoft's Spaces and SharePoint services.

Or does it? I use Blogger software for my own blog, and have since 2001, well before Google bought the service. Blogger is as quirky and non-standard as blog services get, and yet Writer handles it with ease, after you look up a few technical details about your account first. The same is true of a surprising number of blogging services, including TypePad, LiveJournal, Movable Type, WordPress, Community Server (used on the SuperSite Blog), dasBlog, and Radio Userland. Not too shabby for a free product from Microsoft that, by all rights, you might expect to completely ignore the outside world.

And when I say support, mean support: With my Blogger-based blog, I can use Writer to create and edit posts using the actual fonts and styles found on the live site, so what I see is really what I get. It works with Blogger's categories, which is wonderful, and pretty much does it all. Writer has inline spell checking, hyperlink, image, photo, and even video insertion capabilities, and awesome text editing features. You can even upload images to Google's Picasaweb service, which I also happen to use. I'm hugely impressed by this application. Writer is an amazing little niche application that a lot of people are going to find quite advantageous. It's that good.

Windows Live Toolbar

Windows Live integration: Windows Live Hotmail, Spaces, many others, many MSN services.
Non-Microsoft integration: None, though toolbar is highly customizable.
Customization: Can choose from a wide range of toolbar buttons.
My rating:

Maybe this is just an aesthetic thing, but I prefer my Web browser to be as clean and streamlined as possible, and for this reason I'm no fan of the multitude of browser toolbars that are available online. Microsoft's Windows Live toolbar, which works only in Internet Explorer (IE), is typical of the toolbars created by major Web services companies (such as Google and Yahoo). And thanks to IE 7's horrible user interface, it doesn't integrate well into Microsoft's latest browser at all.

These toolbars are aimed at heavy users of a particular Web services company, so if you have bought into Microsoft's online vision--which is absolutely OK, by the way--the Windows Live toolbar might be useful to you. I happen to use Firefox and utilize a number of Google online services--Gmail, Google Calendar, PicasaWeb, and so on--and I actually do use the Google Toolbar for Firefox, but not in a way that's even possible on IE: In Firefox, you can actually meld the Google Toolbar with the main (Navigation) Firefox toolbar, and that allows me to use just a single toolbar, creating that streamlined and clean look I was just mentioning. In IE, toolbars always load below the main toolbar, in their own space, and thus they clutter the interface. (And again, on IE 7, this effect is even worse.)

OK, enough IE 7 bashing. So what does the Windows Live toolbar buy you, exactly? Frankly, many of the reasons for using such a toolbar a few years ago no longer apply, as you can get such things as pop-up blocking directly inside any modern browser. What you get now are the aforementioned services integration points and, hopefully, a few features that you might find useful. The latest version of the Windows Live toolbar is somewhat predictable: There's a circular Windows Live button, with drop-down menu for quick access to such things as Live.com and Hotmail, a sizable Live.com search box (somewhat duplicating the similar search box in IE 7), links to Microsoft and partner services such as MSNBC, Windows Live Gallery, and MSN, a Blog It button so you can blog about the currently displayed page in Windows Live Writer, and some settings and help links.

The real appeal to the toolbar, frankly, isn't what gets installed by default, but rather what you can add to it: Microsoft and its partners offer a wide variety of toolbar buttons that extend the toolbar, and thus the browser itself, in very interesting ways. One excellent example is the Windows Live Favorites button, which allows you to save your Favorites up in the cloud, rather than maintain different Favorites collections on each PC. (I use Google's version of this in Firefox.)

Anyway, the gist here is that the toolbar will appeal most to those who have invested heavily in Microsoft's online services. Certainly, this is a huge group of people. But I think you should weigh the conveniences of the toolbar against the inelegant nature with which such toolbars are forced to integrate with IE 7. In other words, I don't recommend installing this toolbar.

Final thoughts

Overall, the Windows Live suite is an excellent set of add-ons for Windows XP and Vista, and all users of these systems should evaluate these products and download those they think are interesting. That they're free is excellent, of course, but then so are the products' integration capabilities across various Windows Live products and services, and even third party online services. I expect the Windows Live suite to improve its compatibility with non-Microsoft services over time, but even this first effort is laudable. If you're unconvinced that Microsoft gets the Web services world, check out the Windows Live suite. You might just become a convert. Highly recommended.