Microsoft Research sheds light on Windows Live

When Microsoft Corp. began work on Windows Live, it code-named the project Skylight. The name was meant to suggest an extension of Windows, Phil Holden, director of Windows Live, told a small group of Canadian technology journalists at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Wash., this week.

The idea was to offer an assortment of services that, in contrast to traditional software that resides on the client, operate through the network and the Web browser. Those services focus on communication and on sharing and customizing information.

And part of the plan for Windows Live is constant evolution. “We realized that we couldn’t wait so long in our major release cycle,” Holden said. “We’re goaling ourselves to release major updates about once a quarter.”

Windows Live, which was announced last fall, will start reaching the market this summer. “I would definitely say that you’d see a bunch of stuff in July and onward,” Holden said. But for an idea of what Windows Live will deliver, you can visit, where there is information about some of the services Microsoft plans to deliver, along with access to beta versions.

One of these is Windows Live Mail, an update of the company’s MSN Mail.

According to Holden, consultation with beta users has already resulted in one major change in Live Mail. Noting that many MSN Mail users also use its Outlook e-mail client, the company decided to revamp the MSN Mail user interface to look more like Outlook. Users either loved it or hated it, depending on whether they were Outlook users. “The No. 1 piece of positive feedback on Windows Live Mail was the new user interface,” Holden says. “The No. 1 piece of negative feedback was the new user interface.” So Microsoft has decided to offer customers a choice – the new, Outlook-like interface, or the traditional MSN Mail one.

Another piece of Windows Live will be, which will let people create their own customized Web portals, incorporating access to mail, news and information feeds, and small Web-based applications or “gadgets” supplied by Microsoft and others.

There will be ready-made menus of information from which users can choose, but Holden said will also be able to incorporate any Rich Site Summary (RSS) feed available on the Web.

The live “gadgets” will make use of Web scripting tools and Asynchronous Java and XML (AJAX) programming techniques to create simple applications that behave very much like software running on the client PC even though they execute within a Web browser.

Besides creating some of these itself, said Holden, Microsoft will be encouraging third-party developers to add their own contributions. There will be more news on that front around June, he adds.

The Windows Live team is also experimenting with a social networking tool called Live Contacts. Integrated with Windows Live Messenger, it will let users publish their contact information online, where their friends and contacts can choose to subscribe to it. Holden stressed that unlike some such tools – like Plaxo, Inc.’s contact-sharing service – Live Contacts won’t rely on e-mailing people updates and requests for information. Users will simply update their information online, he said, and their contacts will get the latest information when they refer to it.

Microsoft is trying out a capability to make a Live Contact user’s contacts available to everyone on that person’s contact list, so people can find others through mutual connections. People will be able to choose whether to share their contact information this way, he noted. The company is also experimenting with a personal listing service that would let users list items they have for sale or want to buy, reasoning that people are more comfortable buying items from people they know.

Windows Live Messenger will also have Sharing Folders for sharing documents online.

Holden said Microsoft aims to make Windows Live compatible with all new browsers. Most functions work with Internet Explorer competitors such as Firefox today, he said.

There will be more integration between different functions than before, he said. “In the past we’ve been a little too siloed.” The company’s instant messaging, mail and search teams have worked largely separately, and yet, “I haven’t met a single customer that uses a Messenger product that doesn’t use a mail product and doesn’t use a search product.” In future more services and components will be shared across those services, he said.


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