Windows 7 Feature Focus
Windows Live Essentials 2011

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 products. 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 release, 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.

Pulling certain applications out of Windows 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 obviously available to users, so many may not even be aware that these applications exist. Microsoft does promote them, however, in various places in the Windows UI, including Getting Started and in 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.

Windows Live Essentials 2011, the subject of this article, is the third version of this suite. As I write this, Windows Live Essentials is feature-complete, but still in beta. Microsoft expects to deliver the final version by the end of 2010.

Note: 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.


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 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

Secret: There are no longer individual installers for most Windows Live Essentials applications, as there were in the initial version of the suite.

Secret: Windows Live Essentials 2011 is also made available to Windows Vista users, but not to those with Windows XP.

Windows Live Essentials consists of the following applications and services.

Windows Live Messenger

Type: Application
Purpose: Instant messaging and social networking

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, and in this version, the biggest change is that Messenger now supports a full-screen mode that lets you manage your Windows Live "Messenger Social" feed. This feed, configured on live.com, can connect your Windows Live account to multiple social networks and online services, including Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and many, many more.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

You can also use Messenger 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.

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. Or you can just get used to it.

Related: There is a separate Messenger Companion client that you can optionally install with Windows Live Essentials 2009 as well. Messenger Companion is an Internet Explorer add-on that lets you logon to the Messenger service through the browser and share sites with contacts.

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 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

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 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, increasingly sophisticated editing functionality, and integration with Microsoft's Windows Live SkyDrive (Photos) and Groups services as well as Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. (And, via third party add-ons, more popular photo services like Google Picasa Web Albums and others.) Advanced functionality includes people tagging, panoramic photo stitching, noise reduction, and geotag support.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

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 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 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

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.

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

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 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

Windows Live Sync

Type: Service
Purpose: PC-to-PC file synchronization, cloud sync, remote PC access

Windows Live Sync works much like Microsoft's Live Mesh service used to, providing both peer-to-peer (PC-to-PC) and PC-to-cloud file synchronization capabilities. Additionally, Live Sync enables remote PC access, so you can access other synced PCs when on the go.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

Secret: Windows Live Sync was previously called FolderShare. The version in Windows Live Essentials 2011 combines functionality from previous versions of Windows Live Sync and Live Mesh.

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 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

Secret: Windows Live Family Safety no longer requires you to create and manage separate Windows Live IDs for each of your children. Instead, it works directly with their Windows logon accounts now.

Bing Bar

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

The Bing Windows Live Toolbar is a browser add-on for Internet Explorer (and Firefox). It provides quick access to Bing services like news, weather, stocks, sports, autos, money, lifestyle, health, video, private browsing, and more, as well as Windows Live features like Messenger, Hotmail, and more.

Windows 7 Feature Focus: Windows Live Essentials 2011

Secret: The Bing Bar is available for IE and Mozilla Firefox. It replaces the previous Windows Live Toolbar.

Final thoughts

While few users will want to install every single application in Windows Live Essentials 2011, 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 2011.