Windows 7 Feature Focus
Windows Live Essentials

Note: This article refers to Windows Live Essentials 2009, which is the current version of the product at the time of this writing. However, Microsoft is currently testing a public beta version of Windows Live Essentials 2011, the version of this suite. So you can find an updated version of this article, covering Windows Live Essentials 2011, here.

Thanks to antitrust action in the United States, the European Union, and elsewhere around the world, Microsoft has had to reevaluate bundling certain features with its dominant Windows platform. The first to go were so-called middleware applications like Windows Messenger, the instant messaging (IM) application that was previously bundled with Windows XP. In the Vista timeframe, Microsoft began getting more aggressive about stripping applications out of Windows and making them available as so-called out of band updates, that is, updates that are delivered outside of the normal OS development schedule. So we saw the first examples of Vista applications, like Windows Mail and Photo Gallery, being replaced by Windows Live branded applications.

Doing this doesn't just satisfy over-zealous antitrust regulators. Windows is a big and complex OS, and it's developed on a slow and predictable schedule. By removing certain applications from the OS, and thus from its Windows development schedule, Microsoft can ensure that they are updated more frequently and are kept more relevant and interesting to users as a result. Of course, there's a downside to this strategy as well. Separately downloadable applications won't be as readily available to users, so many may not even be aware that these applications exist. Microsoft will promote them, however, in various places in the Windows UI, including Getting Started and Windows Update.

In late 2008, Microsoft shipped the first version of its Windows Live application suite, which is now branded as Windows Live Essentials. That name is deliberate: Microsoft sees Windows Live Essentials as an essential piece of Windows 7, and one that all users should download and install in order to receive the "full" Windows 7 experience. I concur with this opinion: Windows Live Essentials is one of the very first things I install after installing the base OS. And because Essentials includes many applications that were formerly part of Windows, it makes sense to simply treat it as part of Windows, albeit one that will be updated more frequently than much of the OS.

Secret: Many PC makers will simply pre-load Windows Live Essentials on new Windows 7-based PCs, so for the majority of PC users who get Windows 7 with a new PC, Essentials will simply appear to be part of the OS, as Microsoft intends.

Fun fact: While the collection of applications that make up Windows Live Essentials is interesting, what Microsoft didn't include in Essentials is, perhaps, more curious. For example, why isn't Windows DVD Maker part of this suite? Or Windows Media Player? The division of applications between Windows and Windows Live Essentials seems rather arbitrary.

Secret: For those users who would prefer an even lighter, thinner OS, Microsoft is now allowing Windows 7 users to remove a surprising number of bundled applications from the system, including Internet Explorer 8, Windows DVD Maker, Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, and many other components.

What is Windows Live Essentials?

Windows Live Essentials is a suite of Windows applications that "completes" or "light up" the Windows experience by adding a surprisingly rich set of functionality to the base OS. It consists of a single installer, from which you can pick and choose the individual applications you'd wish to install.

Windows Live Essentials

Secret: There are no longer individual installers for most Windows Live Essentials applications, as there was before the current generation suite.

Secret: Windows Live Essentials is also made available to Windows XP and Vista users. However, the suite differs somewhat between each OS version. For example, XP users do not gain access to Windows Live Movie Maker. And Windows Live Messenger behaves slightly differently in Windows Vista compared to how it behaves in Windows 7.

Windows Live Essentials consists of the following applications and services.

Office Live Add-in

Type: Application add-on
Purpose: Provides access to Office Live Workspace web storage from Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint

Microsoft's Office Live Workspace is a web-based, cloud computing service that complements Microsoft Office. It provides two core features, Web-based storage and document sharing capabilities, as well as a host of ancillary functions like task and event lists. With the Outlook Live Add-in, you can access your Workspace web storage from the standard File Open and File Save dialogs in Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, treating these web-based locations as if they were local storage.

Secret: Office Live Workspace, along with Office Live Small Business, is currently part of Microsoft's Office Live family of online services. However, the company will be combining these services with those from Windows Live and will likely rebrand them.

Office Outlook Connector

Type: Application add-on
Purpose: Provides access to relevant Windows Live services via Microsoft Outlook

The Office Outlook Connector will be made available by the Windows Live Essentials installer if Outlook is already installed on your PC. It allows users of that application to access their Windows Live-based email (Hotmail), contacts, and calendar information from within Microsoft's premium personal information management tool. Because the Outlook Connector provides true two-way synchronization of data between this application and the cloud, it can be used offline as well. It is compatible with both Outlook 2003 and 2007.

Secret: The Outlook Connector began as a perk for customers who paid for premium versions of Microsoft's MSN or Hotmail services.

Silverlight

Type: Application add-on/web runtime
Purpose: Adds compatibility with Microsoft's Flash competitor to web browsers

Silverlight is basically a .NET runtime for the web, allowing Microsoft-oriented developers to use their traditional Windows programming skills in the emerging market for hybrid solutions that bridge the gap between Windows and the Internet cloud. To users, Silverlight is essentially a web browser add-on that provides compatibility with Silverlight-based sites, such as those designed for the 2008 Summer Olympic games.

Secret: As a relatively new technology, Silverlight is still being evolved rapidly. The first version was designed almost solely to deliver high-quality video. Silverlight 2 added far more programmatic features, expanding its use as a web-based platform. And version 3 adds support for HD video and PC/web services integration.

Windows Live Family Safety

Type: Application and online service
Purpose: Parental controls

Windows Vista was the first version of Windows to include integrated parental controls, but in Windows 7, many of those features have been stripped out of the core OS. To make up for the lost functionality, Microsoft has added an extensibility framework to Windows 7 so that third party providers can add-on to the parental controls features that are available in this new OS. Windows Live Family Safety is one such provider, though of course it is made by Microsoft and not a third party. As such, it integrates with the parental control features in Windows 7 and adds new functionality around activity reporting, web filtering, and contact management.

Windows Live Family Safety consists of two pieces, a Windows application that determines whether the feature is enabled and then a set of web-based services from which you configure its parental controls capabilities.

Windows Live Essentials

Secret: Because Windows Live Family Safety requires you to create and manage a separate Windows Live ID (formerly called a Passport account) for each of your children, it can be a bit ponderous to use.

Windows Live Mail

Type: Application
Purpose: Email, contacts, and calendar

Windows Live Mail is the email, contacts, and calendar solution in Windows Live Essentials. It's full-featured and supports multiple email accounts, including Windows Live-type accounts (Hotmail, MSN, Live). You do not need to be a Windows Live user to use this application, however. It works just fine with more traditional POP3 and IMAP-based email accounts, and you can mix and match any number of Live- and non-Live-type accounts.

Windows Live Essentials

Secret: Though it looks quite a bit different, Windows Live Mail is the technical successor to Outlook Express, the email and newsgroup application that's been bundled with Windows since Windows 98.

Secret: Windows Live Mail actually replaces three different applications that were bundled with Windows Vista: Windows Mail (email), Windows Contacts (contacts), and Windows Calendar (calendar). And it creates the odd situation where you need to remember to start an email application if you want to view or edit your schedule.

Windows Live Messenger

Type: Application
Purpose: Instant messaging

Windows Live Messenger is Microsoft's instant messaging (IM) solution and one of the most popular IM solutions on earth. But Messenger is about much more than just IM. You can use the application to make Voice over IP (VoIP)-based phone calls and it integrates deeply with Microsoft's many Windows Live services. When you're signed on to Windows Live Messenger, that status and availability is broadcast throughout the network, alerting your contacts about your availability. From this application, you can configure information about your Windows Live Profile as well as view information about your contacts. And a "What's New" feed streams along the bottom of the main application window, giving you an animated overview of what's going on with those in your Windows Live network.

Windows Live Essentials

Secret: In previous Windows versions, the main Messenger window minimizes to the system tray. But in Windows 7, Messenger acts like other Windows applications and takes up valuable real estate in the taskbar with one or more extraneous buttons. You can overcome this by reconfiguring Windows Live Messenger to run in Vista Compatibility Mode.

Windows Live Movie Maker

Type: Application
Purpose: video editing

Windows Live Movie Maker is Microsoft's tool for creating and editing digital videos and publish them to the web. You can import a variety of digital media types into the application, including home movies, photos, music and other audio files, and even recorded TV shows. Then, using simple editing techniques along with professional transitions and effects, you can create completed videos that can be shared with others on the web.

Windows Live Essentials

(Windows Live Movie Maker can also output video files to your hard drive, but only in a limited range of formats. This is by design: While previous versions of Windows Movie Maker were aimed mostly at the home users with camcorders who wanted to share videos in a variety of ways, including via DVD, times have changed, and Windows Live Movie Maker addresses those changes. Now, instead of supporting a bunch of special case uses, the application does what most people want: It publishes to the web.)

Secret: While Microsoft's continued use of the Movie Maker name suggests that Windows Live Movie Maker is an update of sorts to the version of Windows Movie Maker that shipped with Windows Vista, that's not actually the case. Instead, Windows Live Movie Maker has been created from scratch as a brand new application dedicated to the needs of today's video editors: HD video and web posting. As such, Windows Live Movie Maker is still in beta at the time of this writing and will be updated dramatically before Windows 7 is released.

Secret: Windows Live Movie Maker supports popular third-party services like You Tube and Flickr.

Windows Live Photo Gallery

Type: Application
Purpose: Photo editing, management, and sharing

Windows Live Photo Gallery lets you organize, edit, and share your digital photos. It provides pretty standard management features, simple editing functionality, and integration with Microsoft's Windows Live Photos and Spaces services. (And, via third party add-ons, more popular photo services like Flickr, Google Picasa Web Albums, and others.) Advanced functionality includes people tagging and panoramic photo stitching.

Windows Live Essentials

Secret: Despite its name, Windows Live Photo Gallery also lets you organize and share you digital videos as well, though the application is oriented to the types of short home movies you're likely to capture on a digital camera or smart phone.

Secret: While Windows 7 does not include a version of Photo Gallery, it does include a very simple picture viewer, Windows Photo Viewer. Also, while Windows 7 does include a very simple photo slideshow viewer, Windows Live Photo Gallery includes the more impressive, themes-based, and hardware accelerated slideshow viewer that used to be included with Windows Vista.

Windows Live Sync

Type: Service
Purpose: PC-to-PC document and photo synchronization

If you install Windows Live Photo Gallery as part of Windows Live Essentials, Microsoft will quietly install the Windows Live Sync service as well. This peer-to-peer synchronization service will eventually provide a way to automatically sync photo galleries (as well as documents and other files) between PCs you've configured with your Windows Live ID.

Secret: Windows Live Sync works much like Microsoft's Live Mesh service, but it lacks two key Mesh features: Remote PC access and a centralized web desktop that also contains copies of your synced files. Microsoft will one day merge Live Sync and Live Mesh into a single service.

Secret: Windows Live Sync was previously called FolderShare.

Windows Live Toolbar

Type: Application add-on
Purpose: Provides deep integration between Internet Explorer 8 and various Windows Live services

Windows Live Toolbar is a browser add-on for Internet Explorer 8. Unique to this toolbar are several buttons, such as Mail and Photos, that provide pop-up, at-a-glance looks into the related Windows Live services (Windows Live Hotmail and Windows Live Photos in this case) without requiring you to navigate away from the current web page. That is, when you click one of these buttons, a pop-up window appears on top of the browser window. The Windows Live Toolbar integrates with a wide range of Windows Live services. In addition to the two previously mentioned, it includes gateways to Live Search, the Windows Live portal, Windows Live Profile, Windows Live Calendar, MSN, Virtual Earth, and more.

Windows Live Essentials

Secret: Windows Live Toolbar is only available for IE. If you're a Firefox user, you're out of luck.

Windows Live Writer

Type: Application
Purpose: Blog editor

New to Windows Live Essentials, Windows Live Writer is a surprisingly rich and deep blog editor. It works with Windows Live Spaces, Microsoft's blogging service, as you might expect, but it also works equally well with virtually every competing blog service on earth as well. It offers excellent photo and video posting functionality as well as integration with a number of related services, like Digg, Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, via add-ons.

Windows Live Essentials

Secret: There's a bug in Windows Live Writer that occurs only in Windows 7: Thanks to changes in the Windows 7 Open File dialog, you cannot easily post web-based photos to your blog with Writer. Microsoft is aware of the issue and will fix it by the time Windows 7 is completed. In the meantime, you can work around this issue by using Source view to manually add image items.

Final thoughts

While few users will want to install every single application in Windows Live Essentials, every single Windows 7 user should install the suite and pick and choose which applications they will want. Most are of incredibly high quality and a few--like Windows Live Photo Gallery--simply shouldn't be missed. I don't agree with the antitrust regulations that require Microsoft to strip some of these applications from Windows, but the result is certainly a boon to Windows users: A set of high-quality, best-of-breed applications that are available to Windows 7 users for free. If you're using Windows 7--or any other modern Windows version for that matter--your PC isn't complete until you've installed Windows Live Essentials.