As perhaps the most visible and eagerly awaited of Microsoft's "rolling thunder" series of Windows Live-related releases, Windows Live Messenger, the follow-up to MSN Messenger 7 (see my review) is perhaps the perfect example of what the software giant is getting right these days. A decade after the company waltzed into a legal morass of bundled operating systems and applications, Microsoft has figured out that consumers are smart enough to pick the products and services they want, and they aren't particularly interested in being force-fed whatever the company tries to stuff in each version of Windows.

The Windows Live series of services (see my preview) is Microsoft's formal admission that the old way of doing things is wrong. Fortunately, it had to look no further than its former MSN division, which had been off doing its own thing, and doing it well. As I described in my showcase, MSN: The Inside Story, a small team of scrappy upstarts, working outside of Microsoft's monolithic development structure, figured out a way to deliver high-quality products and services on a rapid release schedule. This method of doing business--loosely termed Internet Time in the heady days of the late 1990's--works particularly well for products and services that rely on Internet connectivity and large groups of people that want to interact with others. It defined, in many ways, the very business that MSN attacked.

MSN was, perhaps, too successful to continue as a semi-independent unit. When Microsoft hired Ray Ozzie as its Chief Technical Officer (CTO) as part of its purchase of Groove Networks a year ago, Ozzie examined Microsoft's product lineup and declared the system bankrupt. He argued that the company needed to change its product mix to include a huge array of Internet-based software and services. And he adopted what he called the "live services" model.

At the time, Microsoft already had the Xbox Live service, which nicely encapsulated the sort of local software and Internet services combination to which he was attracted. But as noted previously, the real focal point for this new sort of business within the company was MSN. So by late 2005, most of the MSN products and services had been recast as Windows Live products and services, to better take advantage of the popularity of the Windows brand. And the Office team was up and running with its own line of Office Live services as well, completing the circle (see my preview). Three of Microsoft's core businesses--Windows, Office, and Xbox--would now be defined by a suite of live services as well as the more traditional elements that typically categorize the operating system, office productivity, and video game markets, respectively.

Windows Live products and services

Since writing my Windows Live preview in January, Microsoft has moved quickly to update betas and announce whole new products and services, thus earning the "rolling thunder" nickname I alluded to earlier. Today, Windows Live is comprised of an amazing array of tools, most of which are free or advertiser based. Here's where we stand as of this writing:

Live.com (in beta) - A free and customizable Web portal whose popularity has surprised even Microsoft. The company is now working to supply a variety of dynamic content types that users can add to their customized Web pages, including gadgets, RSS feeds, and integrated Web search. The public beta of Live.com is available now.

Windows Live Custom Domains - Microsoft's domain hosting service provides up to 40 Hotmail-based mail accounts with 250 MB of storage for each account. You can sign up for Windows Live Custom Domains now online.

Windows Live Expo (in beta) - A hard to categorize social networking site where users can buy and sell items online from people they trust. Windows Live Expo also helps you find items locally or nationwide, and thanks to integration with the Windows Live Local mapping service, it's easy to find local garage sales, home sales, or even concerts. The public beta of Windows Live Expo is available now online.

Windows Live Favorites (in beta) - A way to store Internet Explorer (IE) Favorites online so that you can access them from any computer. The public beta of Windows Live Favorites is available now online.

Windows Live Local (in beta) - An amazing online mapping service that goes beyond the normal driving direction-type maps to provide satellite and "birds-eye" imagery as well as, in some locations, even street-level photos. The public beta of Windows Live Local is available now online.

Windows Live Mail (in beta) - Formerly codenamed Kahuna and seen as an eventual successor to Hotmail, this Web-based email service combines the look and feel and functionality of a desktop-based email client with the convenience and ubiquity of Web mail. See my preview for more information. Windows Live Mail is currently in a closed beta. However, you can sign up if you'd like to test it.

Windows Live Mail Desktop (in beta) - A downloadable desktop client version of Windows Live Mail that duplicates that look and feel of its Web-based brethren but adds a number of unique features including RSS support, in-line spell checking (without requiring Office), support for multiple POP inboxes, and Live Contacts. Windows Live Mail Desktop is based on Windows Mail/Outlook Express technology. Windows Live Mail Desktop is currently in a closed beta, but will eventually be provided to testers of Windows Live Mail.

Windows Live Messenger (in beta) - The focus of this review, and the successor to Microsoft's hugely successful MSN Messenger product line. An instant messaging solution, Windows Live Messenger also support real-time video and voice chatting. Windows Live Messenger is currently in a closed beta. However, I have numerous invitations for this beta product. See the end of this review for details about getting the beta version of Windows Live Messenger.

Windows Live OneCare (in beta) - An automatically updating PC health subscription service, Windows Live OneCare provides antivirus and antispyware monitoring (the latter through integration with Windows Defender), while keeping your PC up to date and tuned for best performance. Windows Live OneCare is a closed beta.

Windows Live Safety Center (in beta) - A free Web-based PC health service where you can manually detect and delete viruses, improve your PC's performance, and delete unwanted or unneeded files on your hard disk . The beta version of Windows Live Safety Center is available publicly on the Internet.

Windows Live Search (in beta) - A new search portal that's based on the technology behind MSN Search, Windows Live Search adds a number of new features, including a fresh look and feel, new ways to navigate through innumerable search results, "Search within this site" sub-searching, and RSS feed searching. Windows Live Search is available publicly on the Internet by accessing the search box at the top of the live.com home page.

Windows Live Search Mobile (beta) - A version of Windows Live Search that's formatted for the small screens found on Windows Mobile-based mobile phones and PDAs, Windows Live Search Mobile is part of a closed beta, but you can sign up to test the service from the MSN Web site.

Windows Live Toolbar (in beta) - A replacement for the popular MSN Toolbar, the Windows Live Toolbar for IE 6 and 7 adds a vast array of services, including tabbed browsing, pop-up ad blocking, RSS auto-detect and subscribe, Web-based information collection and organize functionality, and auto fill-in Web forms. The beta version of Windows Live Toolbar is publicly available on the Internet.

It's quite a list, isn't it? Now imagine trying to review all of these things and you'll see the dilemma I've been facing. This week, however, I'll just focus on a single, obvious, and fun product: Windows Live Messenger.

Windows Live Messenger: It's not your father's IM application

Windows Live Messenger is the successor to MSN Messenger 7.x, Microsoft's highly successful instant messaging (IM) solution. If you're familiar with MSN Messenger--and hundreds of millions of consumers, myself included, use the application every single day--than you'll feel right at home with the new version. That is, you get all the cool stuff from Messenger 7--including the borderless windows, Contact Cards, customization features, content tabs, integrated Web search, and other features--along with a bunch of new features, which we'll discuss below.

Main Messenger window improvements

Visually, Windows Live Messenger is cleaner and more attractive than its predecessor and is designed to resemble the Windows Live look and feel. (Microsoft notes that the UI could change before the final release; in the several months that I've been testing the product, it's gone under at least two major UI changes.) (Figure). That is, it features sharp lines with few curves, tight and almost Spartan design, and subtle coloration.

The Messenger main window adds a quick link to Sharing Folders near the top of the window (see below for details about this feature) and loses the MSN Today link, which is just fine with me. There's also a nice paint bucket icon that lets you customize the color scheme quickly and easily (Figure).

Below the top section is a new section devoted to inline searching of contacts and phone numbers. This search box features the word-wheel functionality MSN first revealed in its Desktop Search tool (see my review), which you might think of as "find as you type": The search results list, which temporarily takes the place of the normal contacts list, is narrowed down, literally, as you type. What's interesting here is that this feature searches both your local Messenger contacts list as well as your Hotmail-based contacts online (Figure).

Next to the search box are handy buttons for adding a new contact and managing your contacts (mostly via sorting and grouping), which makes these tasks much easier. Previously, you'd have to know how to activate the menu, which can hidden as with the prior version. On that note, Microsoft has also added a new window button next to the Minimize, Maximize and Close buttons. Dubbed Show Menu, this button lets you access the application's menu system via a single pull-down menu, similar to how it works in Windows Media Player 10 and 11 (Figure).

Below the search box is the tab set and contacts list you know from previous versions. As a matter of design, the contacts list has been cleaned up a lot and made more compact, and thus easier on the eyes. The differences are very subtle. For example, in Messenger 7, the expand and contract buttons that accompanied contact groups were large and square, but now they're smaller, lighter, and are angle brackets. Offline contacts are now simply grayed out and don't include "(Offline)" text; likewise, mobile contacts are identified by a mobile phone icon rather than "(Mobile)" text. Personalized messages are now displayed in gray text rather than black.

Because of the subtler new color schemes, the tab list doesn't seem as visually jarring either. The list of default tabs has been altered somewhat as well: Now you see Contacts, MSN Video, Make Your Own Messenger, Q6, eBay, Rhapsody, MSN Dating & Personals, CNBC, Xbox and Xbox Live, MSN Games, Alerts, and FOX Sports. You can, of course, customize this list via the Tab Options dialog, or simply choose to hide the tabs if you don't use them.

Below the contacts list is an area that alternates between advertisements and links to videos supplied by MSN video. Unfortunately, this area often animates as it moves between ads, which I find annoying. In fact, I'd pay for a subscription version of Messenger if it would let me turn off this pane.

The Web search box has been moved below this pane to the bottom of the window. Curiously, when you search the Web, your results are returned by MSN Search and not Windows Live Search, but I suspect that will change by the time the final Windows Live Messenger version is released.

Chat window changes

Chat windows have been likewise cleaned up (Figure). Now, the name of the person you're chatting with is seen prominently at the top of the window, a boon for those in the younger set that maintain multiple simultaneous conversations. The toolbar has been streamlined to not display the names of each button anymore, and a few options have been changed or trimmed entirely. Send Files has been replaced by the new Share Files (related to Sharing Folders, see below). Webcam is now "Start or stop a Video Conversation." And Audio is changed to "Call a Contact," indicating Messenger's steady move into Voice over IP (VoIP) technologies. There are other improvements as well, related to cleaning up the smaller toolbar that's found over the Enter Message area.

Sharing Folders

One of the biggest new additions to Windows Live Messenger is Sharing Folders which essentially replaces the horrible file transfer functionality found in previous Messenger versions. (I say essentially because you can still send single files to a contact the old way if you'd like.) Basically, Sharing Folders is a place where every file or folder you place there is stored with a specific contact. You set up a Sharing Folder between you and an individual contact, and then copy files into that folder. Anything you put in that folder is copied to a similar folder on your contact's hard drive, and vice versa: Anything they add to the folder will also be sent to you.

Sharing Folders are accessed in a variety of ways. First, Microsoft adds a new icon to My Computer called My Sharing Folders (Figure), from which you can access your various shared folders directly from within the Windows shell. But obviously, you can also access (and set up) shared folders directly from within Messenger. There is a new View your Sharing Folders icon in the main Messenger window, for example, and a new Share Files button in each Chat window. There are also various menu-based ways to share files, as you might expect.

To set up a Sharing Folder with a particular contact, a new Sharing Folders window appears (Figure). Here, you can add files, pause sharing, and perform other tasks.

It's worth noting that Microsoft won't let you send virus-infected files between systems. If your system includes a supported anti-virus product, Windows Live Messenger will use that to scan all of the files you send and receive. If you don't have such a product, Microsoft will simply scan the files while they're en route. You can also download a Windows Live Safety scanner for local scanning; presumably this will speed file transfers.

Sharing Folders is a wonderful addition to Messenger because it encompasses a task that most Messenger users attempt regularly, and it makes it more seamless and integrated than the previous file sharing functionality, which was painful to use and horribly slow.

But wait, there's more

There's a lot more going on in Windows Live Messenger, including PC-to-PC calls, PC-to-phone calls, integration with various other Windows Live services, and more, but I need to save something for the final review of the product. For now, know that the beta version of the product is extremely stable and performs well, and looks a heck of a lot better than its predecessor. It will be interesting to see whether the UI changes again before the final version is ready.

Availability and pricing

Microsoft plans to ship Windows Live Messenger in mid-2006. For now, the product is available as part of a private beta. However, I have over 500 invitations for the beta of Windows Live Messenger. If you'd like to test this product, please send an email to thurrott@windowsitpro.com with a subject line of Windows Live Messenger invite and a blank body. I will fulfill the invitations in the order received. (Update: Sorry, the invites are all gone. If you've asked for an invite and haven't gotten it yet, hold tight, as I still have to send in numerous invites. --Paul)  The final version of Windows Live Messenger will be made available for free.

Conclusions

Windows Live Messenger is shaping up as an excellent follow-up to MSN Messenger. With a professional and pleasantly designed user interface, some exciting new features, and deep integration with an entire suite of Windows Live services, the new Messenger is the IM solution to beat. It's what I use, and it comes highly recommended.