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Making Sense of Windows Live Wave 3, Part 2: Windows Live Services

We live in a world in which we are forced to separately manage multiple online personas, via such services as email (Hotmail, Gmail), instant messaging (Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger), social networking services (Facebook, MySpace), online retailers (, photo sharing services (Flickr, Google PicasaWeb), blogs (Blogger, Windows Live Spaces), and many, many others. Microsoft has an entry in many of these and other categories, and will continue to compete where it makes sense. But Microsoft is also crafting its most recent, or Wave 3, version of Windows Live to be open and interoperable with both its own services and those created elsewhere. The goal, of course, is to provide consumers with a central location from which they can manage these many online personas, reach out to people they care about, and share things with others.

This, put simply, is the goal of Windows Live Wave 3. To realize this vision, Microsoft is expanding improving its existing online services and Windows applications, and it is also introducing new online services and capabilities. In this second part of my attempt to make sense of all this, I'd like to discuss the Windows Live online services, which Microsoft refers to, simply, as Windows Live. (The Windows Live applications, by contrast, are branded as Windows Live Essentials. I will discuss those applications in the next part of this series.

At a very high level, it's important to understand that all of the Windows Live services and applications are designed to interoperate with as many other Windows Live services and applications as possible, and with third party products as well, so I'll be pointing out these integration points as we go along. And because there are so many Windows Live services now--or, I should say, there will be in the near future--it's hard to come up with a logical way to organize them for this article. So I'll simply proceed in alphabetical order. Hey, it's as logical as anything.

Please note that all of the services mentioned here are aimed squarely at consumers and not at businesses users.

Windows Live Calendar

What it is: A full-featured, standards-based, sharable personal calendar
Key competition: Google Calendar
When it will be available: Currently available in beta form, will be out of beta by early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: Windows Live Calendar for mobile with SMS support
Key integration points: Windows Live Home (service), Windows Live Hotmail (service), Windows Live Mail (application), Windows Live Groups (service), any iCalendar-based calendar application or service

Microsoft has been working on its online calendar and tasks service, Windows Live Calendar, for years now, but in Wave 3, it's finally starting to come together into something that can finally rival Google Calendar. It supports all the standard calendar views--Day, Week, Month--as well as a useful Agenda view and a To-do list. You can easily subscribe to iCal-based Web calendars, overlay shared calendars, and share your own calendars via a variety of permissions. What you can't do, still, is publish your Windows Live Calendar via industry-standard iCal. And unlike on the other services, there's no way to get rid of the ads, even if you do pay for a Hotmail Plus account.

Of course, Windows Live Calendar is aimed squarely at consumers, and it's likely that this free calendar and to-do offering will meet most people needs. Especially interesting is its Windows Live Groups integration: Any time you start or join a group, that group's calendar is automatically added to your list of available calendars so that you can optionally overlay them with your personal calendar and other calendars.

Windows Live Events

What it is: An online event invitation and sharing service
Key competition: Evite
When it will be available: Available now, but will be improved in Wave 3
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: n/a
Key integration points: Windows Live People (service), Windows Live Spaces (service), Windows Live Home (service), Windows Live SkyDrive (service)

Windows Live Events debuted a year ago, and as before, it's modeled on the Evite service and based on a Spaces back-end. Not much has changed since the original release: Windows Live Events picks up the new Wave 3 look and feel, and of course you can customize each event with its own theme. You can invite guests, send out updates, edit the event, add the event to your calendar, host and participate in discussions, share photos and other files, and blog about the event.

Windows Live FrameIt

What it is: A service that delivers photos and other content to digital picture frames
Key competition: Proprietary digital picture frame solutions
When it will be available: Available now in beta form, final expected in early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: n/a
Key integration points: Windows Live Photos (service), Windows Live Spaces (service), any RSS feed

Windows Live FrameIt-compatible digital photo frames are not available yet, but they will be soon: This past week, companies such as Aequitas Technologies, Pandigital, PhotoVu, Smartparts, ViewSonic, and other all announced that they will soon be releasing products that support this technology. Even without a digital photo frame to test, however, the idea is obvious enough: Windows Live FrameIt will allow users to publish photo albums (and, curiously, certain non-photo content) to compatible frames over the Internet.

Whether this is a good idea or not is somewhat debatable. I do like the notion of purchasing a photo frame for grandma and then zapping her updated family photos on a regular basis. But it's unclear that grandma will be sophisticated enough to make that work. And the availability of non-photo content--like weather reports, stock prices, traffic, news, and so on--just seems superfluous to me.

Windows Live Groups

What it is: A service for collaborating online with groups of people, such as families, sports teams, and the like
Key competition: n/a
When it will be available: By early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: n/a
Key integration points: Windows Live People (service), Windows Live Messenger (application), Windows Live Calendar (service), Windows Live Photos (service), Windows Live SkyDrive (service)

Windows Live Groups is an intriguing idea: Basically, it's like SharePoint for consumers, offering a way for any group of individuals to share things like documents and other files, calendars, and photos, and a place to connect, discuss things, and discover what's going on.

When you create a group, a group calendar is created for you in Windows Live Calendar, and you can optionally overlay your group calendars in your own private calendar if you'd like.

Groups also get their own dedicated storage in SkyDrive that is separate from your individual storage, and you can privately share photos among members of a group very easily. Unique to Groups is the ability to start and participate in discussions, which are essentially Web-based newsgroups, but private, of course, to the group.

Windows Live Home

What it is: A Web portal that aggregates content from virtually all of the other Windows Live services mentioned in this article
Key competition: Yahoo! home page
When it will be available: The version that's currently available is a pale shadow of the version that will debut in early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: Windows Live Home mobile Web application
Key integration points: Virtually all Windows Live services and a group of over 50 partner services

In its current incarnation, Windows Live Home is just one of several Windows Live/MSN Web portals that you could use as a home page. In fact, there's nothing notable about it at all: Via its boxy and inelegant display, you can see the weather, the next few emails in your Hotmail inbox, the next few events in your Windows Live Calendar, and tons of non-dynamic links to various Windows Live services which may or may not be of interest.

In Wave 3, that's all changing, and Windows Live Home becomes the dynamic, living front-end to your entire life. Yes, I know that sounds like a bit of an overstatement, but if you configure this page as is now possible, it's hard not to be impressed by how useful it's become. And if you're looking for a single view into how impressive the Wave 3 release really is, how it encompasses not just all of the new functionality inherent in all of the Windows Live services, but also in over 50 third party services, well look no further.

Microsoft describes Windows Live Home as a dashboard to your network of friends, and while this curiously business-like description may be lost on many, it's accurate enough. Here, you will find a useful aggregation of what's going on with you and your friends. You will see mail, calendar, and weather information as before, but in a more attractive guise. Favorite photos adorn the header. News headlines and other configurable feeds drive the right side of the display. But the centerpiece, really, is the What's New feed, driven by the activities you and your friends have configured, both within Windows Live and without. This feed lists all of the activities you and others are engaged in, providing a central location for, well, your entire life. Again, if you've configured it correctly.

Now, I have very specific needs in a home page because of the nature of my job. But there is a part of me that yearns to join the real world, and I have to say that the notion of a single place like this, from which one can easily catch up with what is going on the world, is quite compelling. This is an impressive piece of work. I'm curious to see how average consumers embrace it.

Windows Live Hotmail

What it is: The world's most popular Web-based email service
Key competition: Yahoo! Mail, Gmail
When it will be available: Available now, will be dramatically improved by early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: Windows Live Hotmail for mobile (Web and client-based), mail alerts via SMS
Key integration points: Windows Live People (service), Windows Live Messenger (application), Windows Live Mail (application), Windows Live Calendar (service)

Windows Live Hotmail is the most popular Web-based email system in the world and Microsoft has been updating this service over the course of the Wave 3 rollout in stages so as to not offend what has proven to be a very particular user base. Originally, Microsoft had hoped to move to a next-generation UI in Windows Live Wave 2, but so many users complained about the loss of certain legacy features that the company reinstituted a "classic" UI in Hotmail to appease them. That classic UI, finally, is going away in Wave 3, and now Microsoft claims that it is combining the best features of the new and classic UIs into a single UI that should appeal to everyone. I think what they've come up with is quite nice, but I'm guessing a vocal minority will continue complaining.

The Wave 3 UI began rolling out to Hotmail customers in October, and if you're a Hotmail reading this, it's possible you still haven't received that update. Fear not, it's on the way. Coming soon, however, are some other improvements, including WebIM, whereby you can IM with your Windows Live Messenger contacts directly from the Hotmail UI, and a new Instant Access pane, though that latter feature will only be made available in the US and UK. In late 2008, all Hotmail customers--not just those that pay for Hotmail Plus--will be able to access their email account via standard POP access from an email client like Outlook or Windows Live Mail. And in early 2009, all Hotmail customers will be able to use a new POP aggregation feature which can make Hotmail your central location for all of your email accounts. Finally, Hotmail is moving to an unlimited storage model: As your storage needs grow, Hotmail will simply provide you with more storage automatically.

These upcoming new features, of course, bear some discussion.

First up is the Wave 3 UI, which adopts the Windows Live-wide theming model for a more personalized look. Your inbox can be customized to display in a classic two-pane view, where the reading pane is hidden and the currently-viewed message occupies most of the window, or a more modern three-pane view with separate folders, current folder, and reading pane views. Either way, Hotmail is faster and more responsive than before, though it's not nearly as fine-tuned as Gmail, which remains the responsiveness champ of Web-based email systems. Microsoft reports that the new Hotmail is 70 percent faster than the previous version over a broadband connection.

Under the covers, Microsoft has dramatically improved the efficiency of Hotmail's spam filter: The company reports that the filter is now 80 percent more effective than it was a year ago, and that it filters nearly 5 billion spam messages a day.

For the first time, Microsoft is making POP access to Hotmail available to all Hotmail users. That means that you can use virtually any email application with Hotmail now, not just Microsoft Outlook or Windows Live Mail (either or which, frankly, are better than any other email application I've ever used, for whatever that's worth.) This functionality previously required a $20-a-year-fee.

Thanks to a new POP aggregation tool, users can also choose to make Hotmail their only email interface. Here's how it works: You can configure Hotmail to receive, send, and respond to email from up to four of your other email accounts, assuming those accounts offer POP3 access. When configured like this, you only need to access Hotmail to get all of your email. When you respond to an email that is sent to a different account, it will appear to have been sent from that account. And you can optionally send new email from any configured account, not just your Hotmail account. POP aggregation is a great idea because it simplifies managing multiple accounts. And if you become a fan of Hotmail, it will allow you to stay in the environment you like best, while easing the pain of moving off of your old email service.

The new WebIM feature provides a little Messenger-like icon in the Hotmail toolbar that provides your Messenger presence status (online, offline, etc.). New IM-related messages and other notifications appear as Messenger-like "toast" pop-ups in the lower right corner of the browser window.

A new Instant Access feature lets Hotmail users access other parts of the Windows Live services network that might be valuable for an email. For example, you can find and embed local maps, movie times, restaurant reviews, yellow pages, and photos, directly from the email message, without needed to open another browser window or pane. (Note that this feature is available only in the US and UK initially.) Instant Access choices are made available from a new Quick add pane that you'll see to the right of the email message you're writing.

The Wave 3 version of Windows Live Hotmail is pretty impressive, and while I'll need to test it at over time to see if the performance claims bear out over time, I can safely state that this is Microsoft's most impressive release yet of its Web-based email solution. If you've scoffed at Hotmail in the past, you might want to take another look.

Windows Live People

What it is: A storage and management service for contacts
Key competition: Gmail address book, Yahoo! Mail contacts, Outlook
When it will be available: Early 2009; its predecessor, Windows Live Contacts, is available now
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: Windows Live People for mobile contacts integration on select device, Web-based contacts access, SMS-based contact search
Key integration points: Windows Live Hotmail (service), Windows Live Messenger (application), Windows Live Groups (service), Windows Live Events (service)

While Microsoft maintains a Windows Live Contacts list as part of Hotmail, the company wanted something that was more applicable across all of the Windows Live services and products. Thus, Windows Live People was born, a service that serves as a central address book for all of your contacts, including those from Hotmail, Windows Live Messenger, and elsewhere in the Windows Live network.

Windows Live People has a few interesting new features. Duplicate contacts resolution, a manual process in Windows Live Contacts, is now automated. You can invite contacts from third party services, like Facebook, to join your Windows Live network. And while the grouping of contacts continues from Windows Live Contacts, Windows Live People includes new functionality around permissions so that you can determine which groups get access to which information you're publishing online. Put simply, Windows Live People is like an uber, cloud-based contacts management system.

Windows Live Photos

What it is: A dedicated photo organization and sharing service
Key competition: Flickr, Google PicasaWeb
When it will be available: By early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: Windows Live Photos for mobile Web application
Key integration points: Windows Live SkyDrive (service), Windows Live Spaces (service), Windows Live People (service), Windows Live Groups (service), Windows Live Events (service), Windows Live FrameIt (service)

Microsoft's original approach to photo sharing was to integrate this functionality into the Windows Live Spaces blogging service, the idea being that most people who wanted to share photos electronically would do so via blogs and personal Web sites. However, Windows Live Spaces wasn't an ideal photo sharing solution for a variety of reasons--not the least of which was its paltry storage allotment, which also obviated its usefulness as a photo backup solution. So Microsoft is rededicating Windows Live Spaces to its core blogging/personal Web site functionality and releasing a new service, Windows Live Photos, for photo management and sharing. It's long overdue.

As the poster child of sorts for the deeply integrated nature of Windows Live Wave 3, Windows Live Photos is, perhaps, the most deeply integrated of all Windows Live Wave 3 products and services. Yes, there is of course a dedicated site for Windows Live Photos, and yes, it works with Windows Live Photo Gallery as expected. But you can access your online photo albums from just about anywhere in Windows Live, and that's true of both the services and the Essentials applications. You can share photos and photo albums with friends via Windows Live Messenger, for example, and email them from Windows Live Mail. On the services end, your photos are available from Hotmail (for emailing), accessible from Windows Live Profile, can be posted to blogs and Web sites with Windows Live Spaces, and can be shared via Windows Live Events.

Some of the functionality in Windows Live Photos is obvious but welcome: Browsing to the Windows Live Photos Web site, you can view photo album thumbnails and see animated slideshows. You can push albums to digital photo frames via Windows Live FrameIt. The storage back-end? It's all handled by Windows Live SkyDrive. And yes, you can browse your photos there as well. Of course.

Looking at the Windows Live Photos site specifically, you'll see mostly basic functionality. You can create and view photo albums, which don't support sub-folders of any kind, which will be problematic for people with large photo collections (like me; Google PicasaWeb suffers from this same limitation). You can view photos inside an album by thumbnail (one size only, unfortunately; a sliding sizer would be appreciated), or via List or Details view.

You can also play slideshows, which are attractive enough, but don't offer much in the way of options.

Individual photos cannot be renamed, which I find somewhat odd, but you can add a caption, tag people in the photo, or add a comment. Others who have permission to do so can also add comments.

As far as protecting photos go, Windows Live Photos offers various sharing options on a per-album basis. You choose to make albums public (available to one and all), or set permissions to your network (view or add, edit, delete) or your extended network. You can also filter permissions based on the groups you've set up in Windows Live People, Windows Live Messenger, and in other places, so you might set up an album to be viewable only by family members or whatever. You can also enter specific email addresses if you'd like.

Windows Live Profile

What it is: A central location to manage your consolidated online persona, which consists of your Windows Live ID and any associated and shared information as well as an aggregation of over 50 partner services
Key competition: n/a
When it will be available: Early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: Windows Live Profile for mobile Web application, SMS friend invitations
Key integration points: Windows Live Home (service), over 50 partner services (Facebook, etc.), virtually all Windows Live services and applications

While a good portion of the Windows Live Home portal is designed primarily to deliver information about those you care about, Windows Live Profile is the place you go to broadcast information about yourself. Here, you configure which information you'd like to publish about yourself, and who exactly you'd like to see it. You can edit all the typical profile information--name, picture, personal message, and the like--and invite people to join your network. On the surface, it's all pretty obvious stuff.

But the real power of Windows Live Profile lies in its ability to aggregate multiple Web activities--that is, things your doing on other social networks, Web sites, and services--in a single place, creating an automated "What's New" feed that you can share with others. Microsoft reports that it has partnered with over 50 companies, linking your activities on services like iLike, Twitter, WordPress, Yelp, and many others, as well as virtually any custom blog or service that exposes an RSS-type feed, into a single source of information. (Only some of these sources are available during the beta.)

So let's say you are a Twitter user, a WordPress Blogger, and upload photos to Windows Live Photos. Without Windows Live Profile, any time you updated one of these things, you could only share those updates via those specific services. Now, you can share all three--and any number of other activities--via a single Windows Live "What's New" feed that aggregates virtually everything you're doing online. You set up each service from within Windows Live Profile just once and then you're good to go. From then on, everything you do is automatically added to that one What's New feed.

Windows Live SkyDrive

What it is: An online storage solution
Key competition: Amazon S3, Mozy, MobileMe, ADrive, many others
When it will be available: Available now, will be dramatically enhanced by early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: n/a
Key integration points: Windows Live Photos (service), Windows Live Spaces (service), Windows Live Groups (service)

Microsoft's free online storage service, Windows Live SkyDrive, is getting a makeover in Wave 3, but the biggest change this time around is the expansion of the built-in storage from 5 GB to 25 GB. That should hold off complaints about the lack of subscription storage pricing for a while, I suppose, but Microsoft is going to have to figure out some kind of tiered pricing model going forward, as there will always be those--myself included--who want more.

That said, Microsoft is finally moving towards a future where SkyDrive is the back-end, consolidated storage for all Windows Live services: In Wave 3, it becomes the back-end storage for Windows Live Photos, which makes plenty of sense. So it's possible to access your digital photos online via SkyDrive as well as Windows Live Photos though of course the latter will offer better viewing options.

Windows Live Spaces

What it is: A blogging and personal Web site service
Key competition: Blogger
When it will be available: Available now, but will be dramatically enhanced in early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: Windows Live Spaces for mobile Web application
Key integration points: Windows Live Photos (service), Windows Live Home (service), Windows Live Groups (service), Windows Live Events (service)

With over 175 million active users, Windows Live Spaces is the most popular blogging service on the planet. But much of what made Spaces special previously has been spread out across the wider Windows Live network. Yes, you can still share photos from Spaces--indeed, new and updated Windows Live Photos albums are exposed via Spaces automatically now--but the act of posting and managing photos is now handled through Windows Live Photos. And yes, your "What's New" feed is exposed through Spaces as you'd expect, but the management of that functionality now falls to Windows Live Profile.

What we're left with is a pretty decent tool for managing a blog or personal Web site, and, curiously, managing lists of things, one of the sole leftovers from the old service. Oddly, the default look and feel of Spaces is quite different from the other Windows Live services, however, and its more blocky looking for some reason, but still attractive. It does make sense that users would want to customize their blog differently from the other Windows Live services, of course.

Windows Live Spaces lets you add a number of modules, which are like blocks of content you can drag around on the blog's visual canvas. Feature modules include such things as your SkyDrive, an Internet radio, and various weather, stocks, and horoscope-type gadgets. But you can also add virtually any feed, a guest book, a friend list, and all kinds of other things. And, in what I believe is a first for this service, you can now point a custom domain at your Windows Live Spaces blog, and that makes this service all the more compelling to traditional bloggers and those looking to create a personal Web site.

Windows Live Sync

What it is: A service that synchronizes files across multiple computers (including Macs)
Key competition: Live Mesh, DropBox
When it will be available: Currently available in beta form as Windows Live FolderShare; will be significantly enhanced by early 2009
Where you can find it:
Mobile version: n/a
Key integration points: Windows Live Essentials (application suite), Windows Live Photo Gallery (application), Windows file system and Recycle Bin

Microsoft today offers a beta service called Windows Live FolderShare that requires a local install on your PC, and then provides you with a way to synchronize folders of files in a peer-to-peer (P2P) fashion. Confusingly, Microsoft also offers similar functionality in its Live Mesh service, which offers P2P sharing as well as access to a Web-based desktop that can also hold a copy of your shared folders and their contents.

Beginning in early 2009, Windows Live Sync will replace FolderShare. And further down the road, perhaps in Windows Live Wave 4, Microsoft will replace the Windows Live Sync back-end with the technology it developed for Live Mesh. So Live Sync is essentially FolderShare, but with some improvements.

Key among these is that Live Sync will optionally work in the background, syncing your photos from PC to PC, and integrating with the Windows Live Photo Gallery application. I will discuss this functionality more in the next article in this series, but I think it's notable that Live Sync might ultimately benefit those people who, quite frankly, just aren't very good about backing up key personal data.

Final thoughts

The sheer scope of what Microsoft is trying to accomplish with Windows Live Wave 3 is both amazing and daunting. There's a lot going on here, and it's not all happening at once. But as I hope you can see from the list of services above, the sum of Windows Live is all the more impressive than its individual parts thanks to the deep integration Microsoft has fashioned between these services, their Windows Live Essentials application counterparts, and the dozens of third party services that will be coming together over the next several weeks and beyond. Microsoft's vision of creating a hub for your digital life is a good one, and its implementation is impressive. I think this release wave of services is really going to change people's minds about Windows Live.

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