Walt Mossberg

Microsoft Offers Range Of Programs That Run Off Web, Not Hard Disk

The software business is making a slow transition from programs that are installed on a computer’s hard disk to programs that live wholly, or partly, on external servers. These new-style programs, called Web applications, are meant to be launched and run over the Internet, from a Web browser, or from some other small piece of software on your PC.

Like all other trends in technology, this one, sometimes called “Web 2.0,” is overhyped. It’s been happening quietly for years, but it’s a long way from replacing all the software you use.

Still, the biggest software company of all, Microsoft, has recently launched a major initiative to produce this kind of remote software. Its project, called Windows Live, is hardly unique. Google, Yahoo, America Online and many others are also offering new Web applications. But Microsoft’s Windows Live may be the biggest of these efforts.

Google Earth and Microsoft
Google Earth image of building housing Journal’s Washington bureau, top; the Microsoft image, below.

Why would Microsoft, or its rivals, want to make this switch? Well, theoretically at least, it allows them to write one program that can be used on multiple platforms — say, both Windows and Macintosh computers, or even cellphones. And it may allow them to sell subscriptions to their software, or to sell ads that could run inside the software. It will also make it easier to update programs, and to construct programs that can synchronize data among multiple PCs or users.

Some of this stuff would clearly benefit consumers. You could fire up your favorite program from any Internet-connected device, just as you can log onto Web-based email now from any PC. And you wouldn’t have to download or install updates.

But other features of this new world, like ads in software, may be annoying to many consumers. In the world of Web 2.0, people without fast, costly broadband connections would be able to do less and less with their computers.

To get an early look at this new approach, I’ve been poking around in Windows Live, which is a grab bag of mostly free programs. Some, like Windows Live Messenger and Windows Live Mail, are renamed and revamped parts of the company’s MSN online service. Others, like the OneCare Live security service, are new ideas.

All of these programs are in the testing phase, and this column isn’t intended to be a full review of any of them. But here’s a quick, early look at three components of Windows Live.

Windows Live Local: This is a local search and mapping service, complete with aerial photos of cities and towns. Built on an earlier Microsoft project called Virtual Earth, it’s intended to compete with the local search and mapping features of Google and Yahoo. It’s also a competitor to Google Earth, a satellite mapping service that requires an installed program to use. By contrast, Windows Live Local works entirely from a Web browser, and it runs in both Internet Explorer and Firefox, and on both Windows and Macs.

The most startling feature of Windows Live Local is that it can display real 3D aerial images of buildings and houses in many U.S. cities and suburbs. These pictures don’t merely display the roofs of buildings, as Google’s do, but their sides. The difference is enormous. Instead of puzzling over roof shapes, you can easily identify buildings and get a much better feel for neighborhoods.

In its current form, however, Live Local has limitations. For large swaths of the country, 3D photos, which Microsoft calls “Bird’s Eye” views, aren’t available. In Bird’s Eye mode, panning and zooming are clumsy and limited, street names aren’t overlaid on the images, and there’s no easy way to save them. But it’s still a huge step forward. It’s at local.live.com.

Windows Live Mail: This is a massive upgrade of Microsoft’s popular free Hotmail email service. It is simultaneously much cleaner looking and more sophisticated. There’s now a preview pane to the right of the message list, just as in Outlook. Messages can be dragged into folders. When you right click on something, useful email options appear instead of just browser commands.

The new mail program auto-completes addresses and saves sent messages. There are various new security and editing features. Overall, it works much more like Outlook or Outlook Express, though currently many features don’t work on the Mac or Firefox. It will also offer two gigabytes of free storage. People with current Hotmail addresses will be able to keep them, but new addresses will look like “johndoe@livemail.com.” It will be available at mail.live.com soon.

Windows Live OneCare: This is a complete, managed security service, for Windows only, that will be available by paid subscription. The goal is to keep a computer constantly protected and updated with little or no intervention from the user. It does require locally installed software, but it’s managed remotely by Microsoft, the same way a corporate IT department remotely manages the security of all the computers at a company.

OneCare, which I will review in full later, also has features to keep a computer tuned up and backed up. As of now, it lacks a crucial feature: antispyware capability. But that is planned. It’s at onecare.com.

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