Back in March, I provided a preview of Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft's new instant messaging (IM) application. Well, it's been finalized. And though I'm a bit behind on the review--sorry about that--don't mistake my negligence for criticism. Windows Live Messenger, the successor to MSN Messenger, is the finest IM solution available. And thanks to some recent upgrades, it's now compatible with Yahoo Messenger and even VoIP-based phone calls.

Now, I'm hitting the big 4-0 this year, which is a subtle way of admitting that I'm not exactly a card-carrying member of Windows Live Messenger's target market. That is, I'm not a multitasking college student with hundreds of online contacts, all being juggled in real time while slowing coaxing a term paper out of Word while You Tube churns out the comedic videos and AllofMP3.com, ahem, supplies some super cheap music. Still, I've come to rely on Windows Live Messenger in the same way I rely on email and the phone, though to slightly lesser degree than either of those technologies. And if the direction Microsoft is taking Windows Live Messenger is any indication, my reliance on this product will only continue to grow. It's just good stuff.

If you haven't been paying attention to Windows Live Messenger, listen up. It's not just for the kiddies anymore. Yes, the new version allows you to perform text chats with your contacts, and you can trigger annoying Winks and Nudges, though such things could get you killed in certain neighborhoods. And yes, you can share files using a new peer-to-peer feature called Sharing Folders, which the grandmothers over at the RIAA will no doubt have a field day with. Windows Live Messenger is exactly what you'd expect from an IM application. It's also a lot more. If you're interested in the basics, check out my preview. This time around, we're going to look at some new stuff, and I'll explain why I think it is that Windows Live Messenger could soon become the center of the way I communicate with the people I most care about at work and home.

What's happened since the preview

The final version of Windows Live Messenger has changed quite a bit since the March preview. There's a new look and feel--at least the third major revision since the early betas--and Windows Live Messenger now matches the other Windows Live properties visually. This is a smart move, because these services in the past (when they were branded as MSN) were often attractive but there was little to suggest they were part of a bigger whole. Now, the integration strategy is starting to mesh a bit as these products and services mature.

While Windows Live Messenger was the first Windows Live deliverable, it was quickly joined by a number of siblings, including Windows Live OneCare (see my review), Windows Live Favorites, Windows Live Expo, Windows Live Toolbar, and Windows Live Custom Domains. As you read this, Windows Live Spaces is being slowly rolled out, and a number of other Windows Live services--like Windows Live.com and Search, Windows Live Local, Windows Live Mail, and Windows Live Mail Desktop (see my screenshot gallery) in various stages of development. I don't know how they do it over there in Red West, but I have a hard time keeping up with all of this stuff.

From Windows Live Messenger, you have ready access to a number of these properties. You can easily access your Hotmail or Live.com email, visit your Windows Live Space, or search the Web using Windows Live Search. When a contact updates their own Space, you'll see a little gleam icon in the Contacts list indicating something has happened. We're starting to see that these things are all interconnected.

Windows Live Messenger supports simple customization, so you can change the color, or chrome, of the main window and chat windows, letting you personalize the experience. (Naturally, similar customization is possible with other Windows Live products, such as Windows Live Mail Desktop.)

New features

In my Windows Live Messenger preview, I only highlighted some of the basic IM features of this product. This time around, I'd like to look at the Messenger features that are pushing the boundaries of what people can expect from IM applications moving forward. It's only a matter of time before Microsoft and other IM vendors drop the "IM" tag all together. Really, it's just about communication.

First, some new hardware

Microsoft and its hardware partners supported the late June launch of Windows Live Messenger with several interesting new hardware devices, all of which are designed to facilitate various new communications strategies. I'll be discussing two of these devices as they apply to new features below, so let's check them out first.

The first is the Microsoft LifeCam VX0-3000, a new Webcam with a physical Windows Live Messenger call button, a built-in microphone, a universal attachment base that works equally well with flat panel monitors, notebook lids, and CRT displays, and a 1.3 megapixel camera that's capable of 640 x 480 video and 1280 x 960 still photos (Figure). (There's a more powerful model as well, the VX-6000, that a wide-angle lens and 2560 x 2048 photos.) The LifeCam is a fantastic piece of hardware and the nicest Webcam I've owned. Not surprisingly, it also works really well with Windows Live Messenger.

The second hardware device is the Uniden Win1200 Dual-Mode Cordless Internet Phone (Figure) and it's a bit more complex to use and understand than the Microsoft Webcam. The Phone, as we'll call it, comes with a charging base and a 5.8 GHz portable phone. It can be used as a normal phone (that is, plugged into a wall-based phone outlet), as a Voice over IP (VoIP) solution (via the PC and Windows Live Messenger, with the base unit connected via USB), or as a replacement for a standard microphone and speakers when making PC-to-PC calls.

Because of its multi-headed nature, the Phone is a bit hard to set up, especially if you choose to eschew the traditional phone line features. Curiously, it's even harder to figure out if you do use it for traditional phone calls. It does so much, it's almost schizophrenic. I'm hoping to actually replace my home office phone with the Phone, but it's proven my better so far. I'll keep working on it.

PC-to-PC calling

As you might expect, Windows Live Messenger supports what Microsoft is now calling PC-to-PC calling. This is what we used to call audio chatting. On either end of the conversation, you'll need a Windows Live Messenger client plugged into a PC with a microphone and speakers. (Or, if you're savvy and don't mind configuring things a bit, you'll just get a mini-plug-based headset and use that for PC-to-PC calls.)

You trigger a PC-to-PC call by opening a chat window and clicking the Call a Contact toolbar button (Figure). Then, select Call Computer from the pop-up menu that appears. PC-to-PC calls are absolutely free, but the quality of the conversation will depend heavily on a number of factors, including the speed of both parties' Internet connections and the hardware being used to communicate.

I've used both the LifeCam and the Phone to make PC-to-PC calls, and both appear to work pretty well. Doing so with the Phone is a bit interesting, however, because you can "dial" another PC directly from the Phone's handset. You just click the dedicated PC call button and then select an available contact from the list. Then, you speak over the Phone as if you were on a traditional phone.

Phone calls and text messages

You can also make actual phone calls using Windows Live Messenger. By that, I mean you can utilize its built-in Voice over IP (VoIP) support and a compatible third party service--like Verizon's Web Calling service in the US. Here's how it works: You purchase prepaid calling time from Verizon in $5, $10, and $25 blocks (with optional automatic recharge), and can then make calls to over 220 countries with rates as low as 1.9 cents per minute to landlines in the US, Canada, and most of Western Europe. Best of all, these rates apply from wherever you are, as long as you have a computer and an accessible broadband connection. I'll be in France for three weeks this month. Something tells me I'm going to get a lot of use out of this service.

Anyway, to place actual phone calls from Windows Live Messenger, you can access the new Make a Phone Call toolbar button in the main Messenger window (or, open a chat window, click the Call a Contact toolbar button and then select Call Phone from the pop-up menu that appears). This launches the new Windows Live Call window (Figure), from which you can manually dial a number using the onscreen keypad or access a previously-dialed phone number from the Call History pane. You can also call contacts directly if their phone numbers are configured in Messenger. To do so, select the contact, right-click, and the select Call and Call a Phone. (Or, you can open a chat window and go from there.)

If you have a Phone, you can call directly with that device, of course. What you can't do, or at least I can't figure this out, is start the call from the Windows Live Call window. If you start it there, you have to use the normal microphone and speaker you might have, be it the LifeCam, a headset, or whatever.

Finally, if you have a contact with a mobile phone configured through Messenger, you can send them text messages directly from a Messenger chat window. To do so, right-click a contact that is connected to Messenger via a Mobile device and select Send a Message to a Mobile Device. This launches a special Mobile Messaging version of the chat window (Figure). Just one note, which Microsoft is nice enough to highlight the first time you do this. Many mobile phone users are charged for text messages, so don't be a spaz.

Talk to Bots

There's a new Bots tab in Windows Live Messenger that lets you connect with online services via a normal IM chat window. Some of the Bots are lame, like the Billy Bones Bot that came online in tandem with the new Johnny Depp "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, and the Astrology Bot. But some are useful. There's an MSN Dating Bot for all you folks that would rather not be hitting the bars, thank you very much, and something called Encarta Instant Answers, which, yes, let's you query Encarta directly from Windows Live Messenger.

Folks, it's cool. Just click on the Encarta Instant Answers contact in your contacts list, choose your locale, and then fire away (Figure). Here's a typical interaction:

Paul says:
    What is the capital of Massachusetts?
Encarta? Instant Answers says:
    The capital of Massachusetts is Boston.
Paul says:
    What is a hectare?
Encarta? Instant Answers says:
    The hectare is a unit of surface.
    One hectare is ten thousand square meters.
    (1 ha = 10,000 m?)

And so on. Good stuff.

Yahoo Messenger compatibility

Finally, there's the little matter of interoperability. Today, the three biggest IM networks are AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The problem, of course, is that they don't talk to each other, and though Microsoft humorously tried to make MSN Messenger compatible with AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) years back with disastrous results--AOL kept blocking Microsoft's access--there's been precious little done in the intervening years to connect these islands of communication.

Until now. Using a beta version of a new technology that links users with Yahoo Messenger to those with Windows Live Messenger, its now possible to perform a variety of common IM tasks between the two services:

  • See when your contacts are online regardless of which service they're using.

  • Utilize text, video, and voice chat (PC-to-PC phone calls).

  • Use a subset of emoticons that are available in each service.

  • Share and transfer files.

That's good stuff. Now, I don't have any Yahoo Messenger using buddies, at least not that I know of. So I did that lame reviewer thing and downloaded a copy of Yahoo Messenger and then, yes, had a text chat with myself to prove that it works (Figure). It does.

Availability

Windows Live Messenger is available in over 60 different markets in over 25 languages, which is great news for the 260 million-plus people using MSN Messenger today. Like its predecessor, Windows Live Messenger is absolutely free. It requires Windows XP or higher and mostly works fine in pre-release versions of Windows Vista. (Some exceptions: I see visual glitches in the pop-up "toasts" that alert you when contacts come online, and the Uniden phone and Microsoft Webcams are not supported in Windows Vista just yet.)

You can download Windows Live Messenger from the Live.com Web site.

Conclusions

I may be closing in on a decrepit future of old age, infirmary and afternoon naps, but I find myself curiously drawn into the communications possibilities offered by Windows Live Messenger. Right now, I primarily use this product to keep up with friends and family I don't get to see in person very often. But for a growing generation of younger folks, Windows Live Messenger is simply the way they communicate, period, and my guess is that when the war over Internet phone calls concludes, it will be IM solutions like Windows Live Messenger, and not the natty old mechanical phone system, that wins out. That's perfectly fine by me. Today, we have a glimpse of the future thanks to Windows Live Messenger. And like that cute little Messenger emoticon I see so often, this future's so bright, I just gotta wear shades. Highly recommended.