While most of the applications in the Windows Live Essentials suite provide minor, evolutionary updates over their predecessors, Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's instant messaging solution for consumers, has received a major and important upgrade. In this version, Messenger goes far beyond text, audio, and video chatting, and provides a central console, of sorts, for all of your activities online. Via the Windows Live "What's New" feed, which can integrate with a number of third party online services, and through direct access to both Facebook and MySpace, Messenger is to Essentials as is Outlook to Office. That is, it's the application many people will leave running constantly, and will interact with throughout the day.
As I've had to note so many times in the past, I'm clearly not the target market for this application. That said, I actually do use Messenger every day, to communicate with my friends, family, and coworkers online. And go figure, I use Facebook regularly as well, both to keep up with those I care about and to provide updates about what I'm doing in the "real world" beyond the tech space. Heck, maybe I am in the Messenger target market after all.
Here's what's changed in the new version of Windows Live Messenger.
First, the UI has been enhanced, and pretty dramatically. The main Messenger window now offers two views, a new full view, which is the default, and a compact view, which is how the main window used to look all the time. The full view can toggle between Social Highlights and MSN, the latter of which resembles the MSN web site.
As you can see from the shot below, the full view is pretty substantial, and when displaying Social Highlights it provides an attractive (and dare I say, Metro-esque) view of your connected social network activity, along with access to your IM friends list (of course) and email inbox.
These social network views are, of course, interactive. If you see a post from, say, Facebook that you want to comment on, just click the Add Comment balloon, type your pithy response, and be on your way: The comment goes to the correct social network automatically. (You can also delete your own comments from this interface.) And if someone posts a photo or video link, you can view the content inline, inside of Messenger.
If you've been using Windows Live Messenger in Windows 7, you know how annoying it is that the application has two taskbar buttons for some reason. This was fixed in the new release, thankfully, and there's now a neat little row of colored buttons on the mouse-over pop-up preview so that you can quickly set your online status between Available (green), Away (orange), Busy (red), and Appear Offline (gray).
Messenger is available in more places, and more seamlessly in the past. Now, you get Messenger on the web via the Messenger online service (messenger.live.com), in the Hotmail web experience, and through an IE add-on called Messenger Companion that alerts you whenever a friend has updated their content on a site you're currently visiting.
On a side note, Microsoft has also delivered a native Windows Live Messenger app for iPhone, the software giant's second major iPhone app after the Bing app. It works well within the confines of the iPhone environment and provides a clue, I hope, to what the eventual Windows Phone version will look and work like. I've got a more detailed visual look at this iPhone app available elsewhere, but here are a few representative shots:
Whether users will want to combine their social networks and IM/email accounts into a single place--including the contacts from each--remains to be seen. But this is an interesting approach and one that could win Microsoft some converts. Many of us already have too many online accounts as it is, so rather than try to compete with the Facebooks of the world, Microsoft is instead providing a single cohesive view into all of these networks, or at least the ones which we're interested in. That's smart, and it works similarly to the hubs (or panoramic experiences) in Windows Phone 7, if you're keeping score.