A few weeks ago Microsoft made available the latest Beta version of Live Essentials. Most people I know use Windows Live Messenger (formerly MSN Messenger), and that’s all that Windows Live is to them. However, it’s much more than that. If you’ve installed Windows 7, you may have noticed that it no longer ships with a number of productivity applications (for example Movie Maker), All of the missing applications are available through Windows Live. There is a big difference though, in that these applications are all very much “Live Aware”, which is to say that they’re tightly coupled with your Windows Live profile and Live ID. I’ll dive into why that’s a good thing below.
To start with, Essentials Wave 4 consists of 9 Primary Components:
- Messenger – This is of course the one most are familiar with. However, it’s very much new and improved, and I’ll talk about this in a bit more detail below.
- Photo Gallery – Photo Gallery is the Microsoft application for organizing, tagging and cleaning up photos. This, to me is the absolute standout product of the suite,and I’ll explain why below
- Mail – This replaces Windows Mail,which no longer ships with Windows. It allows you to hook in multiple email boxes (of course Hotmail is one option). If you currently use Outlook, you likely won’t use this, but it does work well, and it’s free for the non Office users.
- Movie Maker – This application allows you to put together pictures and videos into a video presentation. It’s rudimentary (I personally use Premiere Pro from Adobe – but that’s WAY overkill for most users, not to mention difficult). It’s easy, slick, and will do the job in most cases.
- Writer – This is the best blog authoring tool that I’ve come across. I’m using it right now to write this. It can author blog content for a very wide variety of blog providers, and this version brings in the (now) familiar ribbon interface. Connecting to Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, etc is an absolute snap now, as it benefits from the new integrated features of your Live profile.
- Family Safety – From the site: “Manage and monitor your children”s Internet activity so they can surf the web more safely”. I personally don’t use it, so I have no comment, but it’s there.
- Bing Toolbar – I hate toolbars – they’re allowed nowhere near my PC. If you like them, I’m sure this one is wonderful, but I wouldn’t know.
- Messenger Companion – This is a little plug in to IE that lets you know when any of your friends share a link (they don’t need to be Messenger or Live friends). It’s also a quick way of sharing a page that you happen to be viewing.
- Sync – If you’ve ever hear of Live Mesh, this is it. This allows you to take a folder on your PC, and keep it synchronized with a SkyDrive folder and/or a folder on another PC that you may use. This works seamlessly in the background, and is excellent for sharing with teams, working with multiple computers, or just making sure that you always have access to current data wherever you are. It is however limited to 2 GB, which to me, is pretty low. I would expect to see that increased in the future. SkyDrive itself allows for 25 GB, so why can’t I use some of that allocation?
These applications are great, in and of themselves, but the real power lies with their tight integration with your live account, and correspondingly, its tight integration with other social networks. Windows Live is Microsoft’s consumer facing social networking offering, but they seem to have taken a different approach than you may have expected from them in the past. They know that they’ll never get as many subscriptions as Facebook, and that the value of a network lies primarily with the number of its nodes, so they seem to have taken an “embrace, not replace strategy. Sure, all of the basic social network capabilities are there, a friends list, news feed, photos, etc. However if your friends use Facebook, no problem – we’ll just incorporate them. MySpace? Flickr, Linked in? No problem, they’ll come in too, and you get one big friends list, and feed that is relatively source agnostic.
Windows Messenger hooks right into that list. So now, instead of a relatively dead list of names, here’s what the new Messenger screen looks like:
You can seen that your friends news feed is there, from every network that you are connected to. You can update your status, which again gets broadcast to all connected networks. You have access to all of your Live content via the Social menu at the top, and all of your friends are brought in on the right, and if they use Live Messenger, you can see their status or initiate an IM session, just like you used to.
Another stand out application is the new Photo Gallery. Yes it gets the nice ribbon interface, but it’s got a few VERY nice features. I’ve always struggles with getting my photos tagged with people efficiently (I’m currently working with a base of about 10,000 pictures), but this makes it a snap. Photo Gallery contains built in facial recognition algorithms, so that it can detect that a picture has faces in it, and that they need to be tagged. It will then extract the faces, and prompt you for who those people are.
Where does the list of available people come from? Why your amalgamated friends list of course. One interesting thing to note is that internally, if your friends names are slightly different between networks, it maintains an internal map to keep everything straight, so when you post to pictures to Facebook for example, users are all tagged correctly.
The real power though comes from the fact that not only does it recognize faces, it recognizes particular faces. Once you tag the same name a few times, the software can offer suggestions, if you go into batch people tagging mode
The recognition is amazing, and while not perfect, it nails it most of the time. It’s interesting to see it recognize the same face over a number of ages, or to see it get confused by look alike relatives.
Tagging is a breeze this way, and all of the tags are respected when sending to any of the social networks. Which networks? Well, any of the ones that you have linked your Live profile to that support pictures. You can really see the power of the integration features here, and the addition of another service will only bring that much more value to th
e platform. This is the beauty of the embrace not replace philosophy. Windows Live is really a solid social mashup platform, filling in gaps where any exist.
To take it one step further, Microsoft will be introducing its new Windows Phone 7 platform later this year. It promises to be an innovative product that changes the way we work with our content, and the way that your personal and business lives integrate. Many of the same concepts discussed above apply to the way that the Windows Phone 7 operates, and its primary means of integration will be your Windows Live profile. Paul Thurott of the SuperSite for Windows is currently writing a book on Windows Phone 7, and has shared his experiences of working with a development prototype. Simply logging in with your Windows Live ID brings all of the content discussed above right down to your phone, no muss, no fuss.
I don’t think that the new Live features, and the new Phone capabilities are a coincidence.I really like what I see developing in this space, and I’m very excited about trying out one of these new phones as soon as I can. In the meantime though, I have a few photos to tag and to post.