Windows Live: Fresh look but same walled garden?

Summary:CNET Reviews has a series that gives individual coverage of some of the Windows Live components that Microsoft has released to the public.  The last two additions to the series -- one for the Windows Live Toolbar and the other for the Windows Live Mail Desktop beta -- were published last week.

CNET Reviews has a series that gives individual coverage of some of the Windows Live components that Microsoft has released to the public.  The last two additions to the series -- one for the Windows Live Toolbar and the other for the Windows Live Mail Desktop beta -- were published last week.  I've been reading the reviews and clicking over to Microsoft's Web site to get more details.  A lot of what I've seen so far looks like a healthy if not welcome remake of previous technologies.  But, at the same time, the nudges (which range from subtle to forceful) into a Microsoft-only world are reminders that the company is a bit more closed than it needs to be.  To be fair though, I can't imagine Google, AOL and Yahoo (the competitors that Windows Live seems most designed to deal with) What would make Windows Live Mail Desktop even more compelling is integrated support for instant messaging solutions beyond MSN Messenger. not heading more wholeheartedly towards similar walled-gardens of their own. But they're invariably a bit more open where such openness is called for (for example, with the Web browsers that are supported).

Overall, "Windows Live" is Microsoft's new brand for the company's free Web and desktop based tools and it is clearly a part of the larger strategy that many of the company's executives have been talking about with relation to how to take on Google and Yahoo, both of which have done a better job to date of monetizing Web-based services than Microsoft.  As Microsoft releases new components like the Windows Live Toolbar, they're generally designed to replace some pre-existing software.  In Live Toolbar's case, that older component was the MSN Toolbar. 

Like competing toolbars from Google and Yahoo, the Windows Live Toolbar is designed to deliver embed additional functionality into the browser, much of it driven by the company's Internet-based services.  Unfortunately, whereas Google and Yahoo's toolbars work in most browsers and on non-Microsoft platforms like Mac and Linux, Windows Live Toolbar still reflects Microsoft's agenda to drive Internet Explorer into the market by supporting that (versions 6 and 7) to the exclusion of everything else.  What follows suit if IE is a requirement? Windows. Eventually, I expect this to change. Over the last year, Microsoft has become increasingly sensitized to the successes of Google and Yahoo and one of the keys to those successes has been  the availability of their services to any user and developer, regardless of which browser or operating system they choose to use.

Much the same way the Windows Live Toolbar is designed to replace the MSN Toolbar, Microsoft's Windows Live Desktop Mail offering is designed to replace Outlook Express -- the e-mail client that comes built into to every copy of Windows.  As a sidebar, Microsoft is also rebranding the Internet-side of its mail offerings -- Hotmail -- to Windows Live Mail.  Get it? The only difference between the client and server side products is the word "desktop" (a smart branding move that Microsoft probably should have made years ago -- regardless of the brand name). CNET didn't have much to say about Mail Desktop (the beta apparently just came out and can found here) other than:

Mail Desktop's prominent "Add an e-mail account" button lets you set up automatic feeds of messages from Gmail and Yahoo Mail. Other features include built-in RSS feeds to display your handpicked news, drag-and-drop message organizing, POP and IMAP compatibility, and spam and phishing safeguards. You'll be able to edit and attach photos and publish blog entries without leaving the interface. Go to to try the test edition of Desktop Mail. 

By way of the mail client's support of the POP3 standard, Gmail and Yahoo mail support were available with the old  Outlook Express. One big difference from Outlook Express that will have some people wanting it back (and ripping a page out of the Eudora business manual) will be the advertising that appears in Mail Desktop (sort of reminds me of how advertising has invaded our instant messaging clients (all of them) where, one day, not too long ago, IM was a much more pristine experience).

The RSS and blog authoring capabilities of Mail Desktop certainly sound interesting and no doubt, if you're a blogger, you may actually like the offline capability. But, if I read the aforelinked summary page correctly, much like the way the Windows Live Toolbar only works with Internet Explorer, it looks as though Mail Desktop will be designed to work with MSN Spaces as the blogging back end since nothing else (ie: Wordpress or SixApart's TypePad) is mentioned (if you know otherwise, please comment below).  That page also mentions newsgroups (as in NNTP newsgroups) perhaps eliminating the need to have a separate newsgroup reader (if newsgroups are where you spend some of your time).  My only question is whether you can point it at any NNTP server or if you have to point it at Microsoft's. The reason I ask is that one answer in Microsoft's FAQ about why a Passport or Hotmail account is a requirement  drops some hints about where Mail Desktop gets most of its juice from:

Well, first of all, we need a way to identify you to help protect your e-mail account. Also, Windows Live Mail Desktop Beta is designed to work with other MSN and Windows Live services. Once you’ve logged in to the program, we can give you seamless, one-click access to MSN Spaces, MSN Messenger, and all your Windows Live contacts....And remember: once you sign in, you’ll be able to see all the accounts you have added to Windows Live Mail Desktop Beta—without signing in to each account individually.

Microsoft has been doing a lot on the anti-phishing front. IE7 has some cool anti-phishing technologies and Mail Desktop will probably tighten the hatches when it comes to spam (phishing is a form of spam) but my hope is that when it comes to all of Microsoft's anti-spam technologies, that they do a much better job of helping me to easily understand why something that isn't spam keeps getting identified by the mail client as such. These are called "false positives."  I know I can reverse the effect by "approving" legitimate senders.  But even better is to automatically create something that I can return to a legitimate sender that explains to him or her that their mails are getting automatically shuttled into my junk mail folder and why. Presumably, they'd want to know this because there's a really good chance it's happening to their other recipients as well.  Recently, when I checked my Outlook junk mail folder, I was shocked to see how much legitimate mail was in there.

Anyway, if you ask me, what would make Windows Live Mail Desktop even more compelling is integrated support for instant messaging solutions beyond MSN Messenger (now, Windows Live Messenger).  For example, it could support AIM, Yahoo! Instant Messenger, and/or IRC (actually, it would be VERY cool if IRC was supported given how many gamers use it as a communications backchannel).  As a side note, there is some integration with Yahoo's Instant Messenger.  As of last month, Windows Live Messenger users can connect to YIM users and vice-versa.  Also, ability to tie maps to appointment locations in the calendaring part could support maps from Google, Yahoo, and AOL in addition to just Microsoft's Windows Live Local (the new name for its online mapping service).

Many of Microsoft's current and future Web-based services (as well as those of Google, Yahoo, and AOL) will be enabled with APIs that will make it possible for independent developers to do some of the integration work that the big four choose not to do on their own.'s Martin LaMonica has a pretty good story on the emergence of this do-it-yourself (DIY) Web.

Topics: Windows


David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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