Microsoft’s Internet Suite Finally Released

Windows LiveMicrosoft this week released its suite of web- and desktop-based tools, Windows Live.

Directly competing with Google, Yahoo, and Apple, in many ways Microsoft’s products are superior.

In testing for over two-years, Windows Live is a free download that contains a comprehensive environment for managing your personal email, blogs, contacts, photos, videos, events, and security. It’s an excellent collection of tools that enable information management from either your desktop or the web.

If you’ve got a Microsoft Hotmail address, you’ve already got your toe in the water with Windows Live, and I’d recommend you consider taking a swim.

Unlike free email services from competitors such as Yahoo and Google, Windows Live includes a killer desktop email client that also handles contact management.

The beauty of a desktop client is that it’s faster and easier to use than a web-based email system when you’re working on your own computer.

That said, however, Microsoft has developed one of the nicest and easiest-to-use webmail interface in Windows Live. It’s lightweight, attractive, and elegant, though clogged with those ever-offensive banner ads.

Fortunately, you can buy your way past the ads by subscribing to Windows Live Hotmail Plus for $30 a year.

A competing service from Apple, .Mac, takes a very similar approach to the union between web and desktop email.

Unfortunately Apple gouges Canadians to the tune of $160 per year to use their underperforming ad-free service (Americans pay just $99).

But all is not rosy with the Windows Live email service. A serious blemish is that rusty old hotmail.com domain name.

It reeks of Ye Olde Web, and it’s almost impossible to get the address you really want anymore.

So it’s nice that Microsoft will let you marry your own domain name to the Windows Live service for free. Using their Custom Domains service, you can dump that frumpy old hotmail.com email address and still take full advantage of the full suite of Windows Live tools.

But Windows Live doesn’t end with email.

An integrated calendaring service lets you share your schedule with other Windows Live users and publish them for anyone to see on the web.

By downloading a free tool from Microsoft called the Outlook Office Connector, you can even sync your Windows Live calendar and contacts into Microsoft Outlook.

And the service’s desktop blogging client, Windows Live Writer, is a phenomenal tool that’s very simple to use.

Of course, it integrates seamlessly with Microsoft’s own Spaces social and blogging environment. I was surprised, however, to find that it also works flawlessly with other blogging services.

I tested it on my own WordPress-based blog and was able to post and edit without any problems.

My favourite part of the Windows Live suite of desktop tools, however, is Windows Live Photo Gallery.

I use iPhoto on my Mac almost every day, and Windows Live Photo Gallery, despite its clumsy name, is in every way that app’s equal. In fact, there are many features in Photo Gallery that I wish iPhoto had, such as the ability to add keywords and notes to photos during the import process.

What’s really excellent about Windows Live, besides the fact it’s totally free, is the high level of interaction between the various tools, both on your computer and on the web.

For example, you have access to your instant messaging status from within your mail app. You can post directly to your Spaces blog from within Photo Gallery. And you have access to your contacts database from pretty much everywhere.

I’m a big fan of being able to move between computing environments and always have the same information at my fingertips, no matter where I might make a change, and Windows Live handles this well.

My primary complaint is that there isn’t an ad-free version of Windows Live.

Unlike with Apple’s reprehensibly over-priced .Mac service, with which Windows Live clearly competes, you’re stuck with ads on your blogs and your instant messaging client. The $30 fee you pay for an ad-free Hotmail should vanquish the visual spam from your Windows Live account completely.

Another major complaint I have with Windows Live, and this is a common Microsoft complaint in general, is the closed nature of some parts of the environment.

For example, a Windows Live calendar user can’t share their schedule information outside of the system.

This is a significant drawback that seriously mars an otherwise excellent package of tools. Google, Apple, and Yahoo all enable calendar sharing via the open iCal standard, and Windows Live should, too.

Microsoft has spent a long time playing catch-up with the web-based information platforms of companies like Google, Apple, and Yahoo.

Now that the distracting Vista White Elephant is behind them, the company seems better able to address broader and more contemporary strategic issues such as their public internet platform.

Windows Live demonstrates that Microsoft is not out of the internet game completely, and it suggests that Microsoft may be the company best able to integrate your desktop world with your online world.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, November 9, 2007.