If you use the Internet regularly, your activities are likely spread out all over the Web. You might be sharing photos on Flickr, emailing via Hotmail, posting status updates on Facebook, following tweets on Twitter, sending instant messages on Google (GOOG) Chat and keeping a calendar on Apple’s MobileMe. You hop from one site to the next, juggling different user names and passwords.
Last month, Microsoft unveiled Windows Live, its Web-based attempt to consolidate many of these activities. Windows Live can be found at home.live.com and includes programs that cover a lot of ground: Hotmail (email), SkyDrive (online storage), Spaces (blogging), Calendar and Events (online invitations). Four new Windows Live categories — Profile, People, Photos and Groups — create a Facebook/MySpace-like feel by following activities of networked users and sharing that data with others.
If you’re using a Windows PC, you can additionally download a suite of seven free desktop applications called Windows Live Essentials from download.live.com that enhance and coordinate with the Windows Live services. These include Messenger, Photo Gallery, Mail, Writer, Movie Maker Beta, Family Safety and Toolbar. I downloaded the Essentials and enjoyed using many of them, especially Mail, Messenger and Toolbar.
But I focused my testing this week on the Windows Live Web services, which, as advertised, let me control various elements of my digital life in one place with one password. SkyDrive is a simple and approachable online-storage repository that will be truly useful for a lot of folks who want a central place to keep files. The Windows Live Profile offers handsome personalized pages with bright colors and designs; compared side-by-side with a Facebook page, it made Facebook look dull and sparse. I also used Windows Live Photos to upload digital photos onto my Profile and then shared them with friends and family in three quick steps.
Microsoft (MSFT) smartly realized that most people already visit a variety of sites for online pursuits and will want to add those activities to their Windows Live Profile. Users can currently link to 12 other sources, including Twitter, Flickr, Photobucket, WordPress, Pandora and Yelp — but not Facebook or MySpace. Microsoft says that it’s working to build relationships with Facebook and MySpace and hopes to have related news next year.
But though various Web activities can be added to a Live Profile, this connection isn’t as productive as it could be. Take Twitter, for example. I added my Twitter account to my Live Profile, but on Live Profile I could see only tweets from myself and from people in my Windows Live network. To see tweets from the 50 people I follow on Twitter, I had to go to Twitter.com.
I had a similar experience with Pandora. I added my Pandora account to my Live Profile, and when I bookmarked Keith Urban as a favorite artist, this tidbit appeared on my Live Profile page. But when I listened to Christmas tunes for a few hours, nothing on my Profile page reflected this (i.e., “Katie is listening to Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ “).
After linking my Live Profile to my Flickr account, I posted photos on Flickr.com, and seconds later, these pics appeared on my Live Profile. But other activities from Flickr weren’t reflected on my Live Profile, such as when my contacts posted photos or when those in a Flickr group of which I’m a member posted photos. To see this, I had to visit Flickr.com.
Microsoft says that in the case of Web activities, the outside companies choose what to show and what not to show. But I can’t use Windows Live as a home base for my other online activities unless it displays useful data that save me trips to other Web sites.
Like many social-networking services, Windows Live gives special privileges to those who are in the network. To belong to a Windows Live network, one must first have a Windows Live ID, which anyone can get by signing up for Hotmail, Windows Live Messenger or Xbox Live.
Windows Live also allows interaction with people outside the network. For instance, I can share any of the photos that I upload to my profile with friends and family who don’t have Windows Live IDs by simply emailing a link to them. These people don’t need a Windows Live ID to look at the photos.
When I used Windows Live to share photos with my sister, who has received hundreds of digital shots from me on every photo-sharing Web site I’ve tested, she wasn’t impressed. She correctly pointed out that other sharing sites, like Shutterfly, allow full-screen slideshow views; Windows Live limits slide shows to the size of the browser window.
Windows Live Web services work best on Microsoft’s own Internet Explorer browser, version 6 and up, and a special quick-photo-upload tool works only with Internet Explorer. This uploading tool doesn’t work with Apple’s (AAPL) Safari browser or the Mozilla Firefox browser; instead, you must slowly add each photo to your page, selecting them one at a time.
If you’re using a Windows PC, the Windows Live Essentials are definitely worth installing. Photo Gallery enables simple photo publishing directly from your computer’s collection of My Pictures, and specific faces can be labeled and tagged in each shot. Windows Live Mail, which replaced Outlook Express last year, is a smoothly designed program that I rely on every day for use with three different email accounts. Windows Live Messenger links into the Live Web services specifically by retrieving the status updates for each person in your network and displaying those in a ticker-like panel at the bottom of Messenger. The Windows Live Toolbar works only in Internet Explorer but shows an at-a-glance view of your network’s updates, along with photos, email and calendar — all in the top panel of the browser.
Windows Live Essentials are still in beta, or testing, mode, and Windows Live Web services will add more partnerships next month. I’ll be anxious to see if these new partnerships operate more productively with the Live Profile. Aggregating content from across the Web isn’t worthwhile unless that content is fully and usefully accessible in its new home.
Still, Windows Live Web services and Essentials provide solid tools that can help you organize your email, messaging, photos, storage, scheduling and social networking in one place with one password. That, by itself, is a relief.
Edited by Walter S. Mossberg