I haven't attempted to fully catalog Microsoft's use of the term "software + services," but I know it's evolved over time. Microsoft first began using the term as a way to explain why it wasn't more fully embracing Web-based services and the movement towards Web 2.0 solutions, but analysts saw that as backpedaling and an expression of the company's need to protect core traditional products like Windows and Office. This year, however, Microsoft shifted gears and "software + services" went along for the ride. As I now understand it, Microsoft plans to provide customers with the solutions they need, regardless of how they're delivered. This plan spans the range from true services, such as Web services that expose functionality via published interfaces but have no GUI in the classic sense, to online services that integrate with UI bits, such as Windows Live Messenger, Hotmail, and the like, and then more traditional PC-based software that speaks back to the so-called cloud.

The software + services vision at Microsoft includes a number of software pieces, and of course a huge chunk of the company, most of which I'm sure is working in isolation from each other. And let's not forget what is perhaps the most dramatic part of this initiative, the Windows Live Core platform the company announced earlier this year. Most impressive about this development, to me at least, is that David Cutler, the original architect of Windows NT, is now working on Windows Live Core.

Before we can get to the deep vision stuff, however, we have to take a few baby steps. And as it turns out, Microsoft has been working on solutions that qualify as nascent software + services for quite some time now. Originally known as MSN, Microsoft's online services group has split into a number of related groups, and the most relevant to us at this moment, Windows Live, is now delivering on what we might think of as the first generation of software + services. This is the group responsible for Windows Live Hotmail, Windows Live Messenger, and a surprisingly rich collection of other online services, Windows-based software applications, and other products, all of which have at least one thing in common with each other: They integrate with Windows and other Windows Live products and services in ways that are both disarming and useful.

Here's a simple example. Let's say you are using Messenger to keep in touch with friends, co-workers, and others. These days, instant messaging (IM) has taken its place alongside in-face meetings, email, and phone calls as a standard way that individuals communicate with others on a regular basis. Like any other IM solution, Messenger lets you text chat with others one-on-one, but it also provides a host of other services. Audio chat, as with a phone. Video chat, as per video conferencing. It works with mobile devices, and via the Web. And it integrates with a number of other Windows Live services and completely unrelated applications. You can share files. Share your thoughts and photos via a Windows Live Spaces blog. Make international phone calls from your PC at little cost. Heck, you can configure Windows Live Messenger to display the song you're currently listening to in Windows Media Player. But of course, you say, that's a Microsoft product. Sure, but it works with Apple's iTunes too. The list goes on and on and on.

And that's just Messenger, and just an incomplete look at Messenger at that. A quick look at Microsoft's Windows Live site shows a growing list of other applications and services--Live Search, the Live.com portal, Windows Live Expo, Windows Live Hotmail, Windows Live Spaces, Windows Live OneCare, Windows Live Favorites, Windows Live Alerts, Windows Live Custom Domains, Windows Live for Mobile, and more. And there are many, many beta Windows Live solutions, including Windows Live Writer, Windows Live Mail, Windows Live Photo Gallery, and so on. This is a busy group of people. And while the rest of Microsoft is suddenly talking up software + services to one degree or the other, the Windows Live group has been walking the walk for quite some time. And this past week, they shipped a public beta version of a consumer oriented suite that provides us with the first glimpse of how this software + services vision can become a reality. I call it Windows Live suite, with a small "s" because it's not properly part of the name, and while this first version is heavy on software that integrates with Web-based services, future versions will provide a handy and direct front-end to Microsoft's online services as well. This is an evolution, again, that can't happen overnight. But it is happening. Let's take a look.

Installing Windows Live 2.0

Internally, Microsoft considers today's in-development versions of Windows Live Messenger, Mail, Photo Gallery, Writer, Toolbar, OneCare Family Safety, and other related products and services to be part of a new generation of Windows Live called Windows Live 2.0. (Confusingly, it's also referred to as Windows Live Desktop occasionally.) For the first time, these client applications are being made available via a single installer, which explains the term Windows Live suite. Previously, you could obtain beta and shipping versions of some of these and other Windows Live products and services individually. But Microsoft has been thinking of how it can bundle these solutions together in ways that will expose them to new services while still leaving them in charge of what they do and do not download.

"We've been talking about integrated experiences for a while now," Microsoft lead product manager Larry Grothaus told me during a recent briefing. "This is the fruition of that vision, and we're providing more value to customers who use Windows every day."

The big deal this time around is the unified installer, and unlike most of the product installers you've no doubt downloaded from the Web over the past several years, this one actually lives partially in the cloud: You instantiate it from a Web page, choose the products and services you want there, and only then is a Windows-based installer downloaded. That installer is largely hands-off, however, taking its cue from the choices you made in the Web-based part of the installer.

Here's how it works. Microsoft has created a new Jump into Windows Live Web site that lists all of the Windows Live services that are currently available via the installer. It's quite a list too, and includes such things as Hotmail (a Web-based service), Mail (a desktop-based email client), Messenger (a desktop-based IM client), Search (a Web-based search service), Toolbar (an Internet Explorer add-on), Gallery (an online service with gadgets for Windows Sidebar, the Live Home portal, and Windows Sideshow devices), Spaces (a Web-based blogging service), SkyDrive (a Web-based storage service), Photo Gallery (a desktop-based photo and video management application), Writer (a desktop-based blog editor), OneCare Family Safety (a desktop-based family security solution), and Windows Live Home (the Web portal).

When you click the Get Windows Live button, you're brought to the first page of the installer, titled Create your Windows Live world. Here, you will want to be careful. You can choose between the six desktop-based products mentioned above (Windows Live Mail, Messenger, Photo Gallery, Writer, Toolbar, and OneLive Family Safety), five of which are pre-selected. You can also choose to configure a few basic settings, including changing your browser search default (well, IE only) to Live.com, setting your browser (again, just IE) home page to MSN.com, and helping Microsoft by allowing it to collect anonymous information about your installation experience. All of these settings are check by default, so read carefully.

Once you've made your choices, click the Install button and the client portion of the installer will download to your hard drive and execute. It will list the products you've chosen to install on the top, with those you have not on the bottom, providing you with a chance to change your mind. The installer will first check to determine if you already have any of the products you selected, and will then install only those that are new or available in newer versions. The length of installation will depend on the number of applications you chose and, I've found, on the number of Windows Live applications you already have installed. Be advised that you should shut down any existing Windows Live applications on your system, as the installer could trip up otherwise. In one case, it alerted me that something called WLLoginProxy.exe had to be closed before it could continue. I looked in Task Manager but couldn't find anything with that name. But then I realized Messenger was running, so I closed that, and that did the trick.

As the applications are downloaded and installed one by one, the Installer will highlight those that are ready and can be started, so you won't need to wait for the Installer to complete. That's a nice touch, but unlike Google's recently updated Google Pack (see my review), the integrated installer doesn't provide any sort of servicing functionality. As these products are updated, you will have to rely on their own built-in updating mechanisms or, presumably, an eventual integration with Windows Update.

One the installer is complete, you can click the links of any application you'd like to start immediately or just click the Close button and then find the applications in your Start Menu as needed. As you might expect, Microsoft has created a new Windows Live Start Menu group that contains links to the installed applications. (And since the applications all start with the words "Windows Live," they're easy to find with the Start Menu Search feature in Windows Vista.)

A note about Windows Live customization

Before getting into the individual applications, tools, and services that are made available through this installer, I'd like to highlight one simple issue that affects almost all of them. While Microsoft has struggled over the past few years to create an attractive and cohesive Windows Live look and feel that it can use across all of its Windows Live solutions, the company this year settled on a look and feel that I find quite attractive (see my Windows Live Hotmail August 2007 Update Screenshot Gallery for details).

Better still, it's highly customizable: Many of the Windows Live Web-based services and Windows-based applications that are available today, either on the Web or on your desktop, sport configurable color schemes, so if you don't happen to like Windows Live Blue (tm), you can opt for black, green, orange, or any other color that strikes your fancy.

I appreciate this small nod toward customization, but I'd like to see Microsoft extend it in two basic and fairly obvious ways. First, all applications and services should support this choice: Right now, some, like Windows Live Photo Gallery, do not, and they stick out in an unpleasant visual way as a result. Second, users should be able to specify their favorite color scheme as part of their Windows Live profile and have that be applied to all Windows Live applications and services when you're logged on. In other words, I shouldn't have to manually change the color scheme of every single one of these applications, and Microsoft's many Windows Live Web services, to black or whatever other color I like.

I'm sure this sort of thing is in the works, along with other customization options that would never occur to me. But the haphazard nature of color scheme implementation across the various Windows Live solutions today is a hint that we're still in the early stages of what Microsoft is trying to accomplish.

Moving on...

A look at the beta applications

In this first beta version of the Windows Live suite, Microsoft makes a number of applications, one desktop service, and a few Web services-based settings available via the integrated installer. In this section, I'll examine each of these applications and services briefly, but will withhold final scores until the final version of the suite is made available later this year.

Windows Live Mail

The Windows Live team has been working on this follow-up and replacement to Outlook Express and Windows Mail for about a year and a half now, and while we've seen various beta versions over that time, the version include with the Windows Live suite beta is the most refined yet. As per previous betas, however, Windows Live Mail (which at one point was to have been called Windows Live Mail Desktop) doesn't do much to overcome its somewhat unimpressive heritage: It looks a little bit too much like Outlook Express for my tastes, especially the nearly identical Options dialog.

That said, Windows Live Mail is a solid email client, with support for multiple email accounts--Hotmail, Live.com, and MSN, yes, but also any POP3 or IMAP accounts you may have. Those who do opt to use Windows Live Mail as a front-end for their Microsoft-oriented email accounts will see a number of integration benefits with such products as Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Spaces. Additionally, Windows Live Mail includes some nice modern additions like instant search and RSS feed subscriptions. (There's also the increasingly irrelevant USENET newsgroup support that dates back to the earliest days of Microsoft's Internet Mail and News products.)

One thing that's missing is support for the calendar component of Windows Live Hotmail, which has yet to be upgraded along with the rest of the service. Vista owners can't even subscribe to Hotmail-based calendars in Windows Calendar, so I assume this sort of functionality is on the way, though I haven't discussed this with Microsoft in quite a while. The contacts integration works as you'd expect.

If you're a fan of Outlook Express or Windows Mail for some reason, or a heavy user of Microsoft's online services, Windows Live Mail should prove to be a compelling and obvious upgrade if you're looking for a desktop-based solution and don't own the latest version of Outlook. Those who are a bit put off by these consumer email applications--and I place myself in this category--should try to look beyond Windows Live Mail's humble origins. This is an excellent email client with a modern feature set, and I find it less exotic and eclectic than other free email applications like Mozilla Thunderbird.

Windows Live Messenger 8.5

I've been using Windows Live Messenger and its predecessors for so long now I can hardly remember when it all started. That said, my opinion on such things might not be particularly valuable: As an increasingly cranky and old guy, instant messaging (IM) to me is just another interruption when I'm trying to get work done, and I'm often astonished when I wake up in the morning to discover that people have left me messages overnight as if they didn't realize I was offline. (Which is always a possibility.)

Don't let my negativity get in the way, however. For what it is, Messenger 8.5 is a fine IM client, and of course it's big attraction is that it integrates with other Windows Live services. The first version of Messenger to sport the Windows Live moniker was version 8, and that shipped last August (see my review). That version was a major release, with PC-to-PC calling, sharing folders, and the beginnings of the Windows Live integration stuff we now take for granted.

As its version number suggests, Messenger 8.5 isn't a major update, so it's full of mostly subtle changes. For example, this version adds a new look and feel with a dramatically refined interface across the board. Nothing dramatic.

Where Messenger shines, of course, is in how it integrates with other Windows Live services. Since you'll need a Windows Live ID (formerly Passport) account, you will gain access to your Hotmail-based email, Spaces-based blog, Windows Mobile-based portable device, and the like, all in obvious and discoverable ways. You can search the Web with Live.com, make phone calls, invite multiple people to chats, and perform high-quality video conferences. Messenger is increasingly becoming Microsoft's desktop-based, consumer-oriented communications hub (a role that Office Live Communicator will likely play for knowledge workers). And this, ultimately, is why I continue to use Messenger despite my general lack of regard for IM: When you need to get in touch with someone quickly, this is a simple and effective way to do so.

Windows Live Photo Gallery

Windows Live Photo Gallery is the most intriguing application in the Windows Live suite, from my perspective. It's unusual, but not unique, in that it is one of the few Windows Live applications that is an upgrade for and replacement of an application that ships as part of Windows Vista. (The other is Windows Live Mail, which replaces Vista's Windows Mail.) Likewise, Windows Live Photo Gallery works in Windows XP too, which is neat as its predecessor was Vista-only.

So I'm relieved to see that we won't have to wait for a Photo Gallery update until the next major Windows release. But it's not just that: Windows Live Photo Gallery also expands on its predecessor in interesting and useful ways in two ways. First, there are traditional product enhancements, like the photo stitching feature, Adjust Detail/Sharpen photo fix functionality, and QuickTime movie support. Second, Windows Live Photo Gallery adds features that integrate, go figure, with the appropriate Windows Live services. You can upload photos to your Windows Live Spaces blog, or upload videos to MSN Soapbox.

Sadly, Photo Gallery is the least mature of the applications in the Windows Live suite beta. It crashes frequently, and doesn't offer the color scheme customization feature that graces most of the other suite applications. But its predecessor is excellent, and I'm sure the Windows Live team will pull it together over time. I'll be watching this one closely.

Windows Live Writer

There are basically two groups of bloggers out there today: The hard-core and occasionally high profile niche bloggers--those who blog about blogging and other technologies, or perhaps politics--and the normal people, those who blog about their cats, their vacations, and their families. These two groups don't have a lot in common beyond the fact that they can publish content online via blogs, and one might think that Microsoft's blog editor, Windows Live Writer, would target the latter group rather than the former, given the audience Windows Live is trying to reach. That assumption is, of course, correct. But something rather interesting has happened since Microsoft shipped the first public beta version of Writer many moons ago: The blogoratti got its hands on the tool and decided they actually liked it too. And now this unassuming tool has achieved a rare crossover success that touches on both sides of the fence.

The very existence of Windows Live Writer is somewhat astonishing given that Microsoft already makes Word, the best text processor on earth, and the latest version of that product, Word 2007, including pretty extensive blogging capabilities as well. But here it is, and unlike Word, Windows Live Writer is free. And you know what? It's actually pretty sweet. The UI is attractive and the feature set is amazingly complete. It supports a wide range of blogging services, though of course it works best with Microsoft's Spaces and SharePoint services.

Or does it? I use Blogger software for my own blog, and have since 2001, well before Google bought the service. Blogger is as quirky and non-standard as blog services get, and yet Writer handles it with ease, after you look up a few technical details about your account first. The same is true of a surprising number of blogging services, including TypePad, LiveJournal, Movable Type, WordPress, Community Server, dasBlog, and Radio Userland. Not too shabby for a free product from Microsoft that, by all rights, you might expect to completely ignore the outside world.

And when I say support, mean support: With my Blogger-based blog, I can use Writer to create and edit posts using the actual fonts and styles found on the live site, so what I see is really what I get. It works with Blogger's categories, which is wonderful, and pretty much does it all. Writer has inline spell checking, hyperlink, image, photo, and even video insertion capabilities, and awesome text editing features. In this latest beta version, which Microsoft calls Beta 3, you can even upload images to Google's Picasaweb service, which I also happen to use. When it comes to highly targeted software, this is near bliss. I'm hugely impressed by this tool and will continue to test it heavily.

One final comment here. I'm a recent convert to cloud-based computing, choosing to manage such things as email and calendar via Web services (Google's, in my case, at least for now) instead of using monolithic desktop applications (like Microsoft Outlook). So why would I even consider using a Windows-based application to publish posts to what is obviously a Web service? Honestly, the answer is pretty simple: Writer's editing features are far richer than anything Google offers via the Blogger interface, and this makes Writer very interesting. It's the same reason I still use Microsoft Word and Excel instead of Google Docs & Sheets or whatever other Web-based office productivity services are out there. Over time, this may change. But we're only in the beginning stages of the transition to Web-based services, and for the short term, one will want to pick and choose the solutions that make the most sense. The important thing is that, in this case, the content lives up in the cloud. Where you make the edits is something that will evolve over time. And right now, Writer is an amazing little niche application that a lot of people are going to find quite advantageous. I may be among that group. It's that good.

Windows Live Toolbar

Maybe this is just an aesthetic thing, but I prefer my Web browser to be as clean and streamlined as possible, and for this reason I'm no fan of the multitude of browser toolbars that are available online. Microsoft's Windows Live toolbar, which works only in Internet Explorer (IE), is typical of the toolbars created by major Web services companies (such as Google and Yahoo). And thanks to IE 7's horrible user interface, it doesn't integrate well into Microsoft's latest browser at all.

These toolbars are aimed at heavy users of a particular Web services company, so if you have bought into Microsoft's online vision--which is absolutely OK, by the way--the Windows Live toolbar might be useful to you. I happen to use Firefox and utilize a number of Google online services--Gmail, Google Calendar, PicasaWeb, and so on--and I actually do use the Google Toolbar for Firefox, but not in a way that's even possible on IE: In Firefox, you can actually meld the Google Toolbar with the main (Navigation) Firefox toolbar, and that allows me to use just a single toolbar, creating that streamlined and clean look I was just mentioning. In IE, toolbars always load below the main toolbar, in their own space, and thus they clutter the interface. (And again, on IE 7, this effect is even worse.)

OK, enough IE 7 bashing. So what does the Windows Live toolbar buy you, exactly? Frankly, many of the reasons for using such a toolbar a few years ago no longer apply, as you can get such things as pop-up blocking directly inside any modern browser. What you get now are the aforementioned services integration points and, hopefully, a few features that you might find useful. The latest version of the Windows Live toolbar is somewhat predictable: There's a circular Windows Live button, with drop-down menu for quick access to such things as Live.com and Hotmail, a sizable Live.com search box (somewhat duplicating the similar search box in IE 7), links to Microsoft and partner services such as MSNBC, Windows Live Gallery, and MSN, a Blog It button so you can blog about the currently displayed page in Windows Live Writer, and some settings and help links.

The real appeal to the toolbar, frankly, isn't what gets installed by default, but rather what you can add to it: Microsoft and its partners offer a wide variety of toolbar buttons that extend the toolbar, and thus the browser itself, in very interesting ways. One excellent example is the Windows Live Favorites button, which allows you to save your Favorites up in the cloud, rather than maintain different favorites collections on each PC. (I use Google's version of this in Firefox.)

Anyway, the gist here is that the toolbar will appeal most to those who have invested heavily in Microsoft's online services. Certainly, this is a huge group of people. But I think you should weigh the conveniences of the toolbar against the inelegant nature with which such toolbars are forced to integrate with IE 7.

Windows Live Family Safety

Of the several products provided by the Windows Live suite beta, this is the one with which I have the least experience, so I'll provide only a quick overview here along with a promise to examine this more closely before the suite is completed. Windows Live Family Safety is a PC-based service that extends the parental controls that are native to Windows Vista (and not found at all in XP) with a variety of Web, email, instant messaging, blogging, and Internet search protections aimed at keeping your children safe online. As such, it's best used on PCs that are shared between parents and children.

Using Windows Live Family Safety, parents can configure which types of Web sites their children can visit using a number of content categories that are specified on a per-child basis. Guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics provides age-specific settings, and regular activity reports, as well as per-incident approvals will help to ensure you're aware of your children's activities online. Parents can also create allow and deny lists for various Windows Live services, to help prevent them from communicating online with random others.

The tricky part of Windows Live Family Safety, from what I can see, is the account management. You have to tie the service into your Windows Live ID, of course, and then create separate Windows Live IDs for each child, and configure each accordingly. For those who want to keep their children safe online--basically any parent reading this, I assume-- Windows Live Family Safety looks solid. But again, I'll need more experience with this first, so I'll be installing it on the PC my children regularly use to monitor how it works over time.

Looking ahead

As it now stands in beta form, the Windows Live suite offers an interesting mix of consumer-oriented software that does deliver on Microsoft's software + services vision. This suite will only get better over time, of course. In addition to the steady improvements to each suite component--which the Windows Live team has proven very adept at over the years--we can expect to see other additions to the suite over time. Chief among these will be more options for signing up for and configuring various Windows Live services that live in the cloud. One might think of today's beta suite as being primarily desktop-based in that most of the tools we're now seeing are clearly desktop applications. But the mix of desktop apps and Web-based services will even out over time, I'm told. So you can expect to see such things as a way to configure Windows Live Spaces from the installer.

Final thoughts

In beta form, the Windows Live suite will most clearly benefit those users who have bought into Microsoft's online services. But going forward, this suite will be of interest to most general Windows users as well, as it so adeptly integrates the Windows desktop experience with Microsoft's Web-based services. Applications like Windows Live Mail and Photo Gallery are better than their predecessors in Windows Vista, and work with a growing lineup of online services. Messenger is a first class IM application that's turning into an all-around communications tool. For bloggers of any stripe, Windows Live Writer is a surprisingly capable application, and well worth evaluating. And Windows Live Family Safety could be that key online security piece you were looking for. This is an interesting suite, and it's only going to get better. Highly recommended, even in beta form.