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Wednesday, November 7, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Windows Live suite graduates from "beta"

Seattle Times technology reporter

Windows Live

Microsoft's suite of free, consumer-focused online services includes the following components (they can be downloaded as a set or individually at www.windowslive.com.)

Mail: Desktop client for checking multiple e-mail accounts

Hotmail: Web-based e-mail service

Messenger: Instant-messaging service

Photo Gallery: Desktop client for photo organizing, editing and online sharing

Spaces: Blogging and social-networking service

Writer:Desktop client for publishing to blogs

Events: Online party planning

OneCare Family Safety: Parental-control software for managing when kids are online and whom they communicate with

Source: Microsoft

After two years of fits and starts, tweaking and branding, Microsoft let fly its most complete set of consumer-focused online services under the Windows Live banner.

Little is new in the suite of free online e-mail, messaging, photo-sharing, blogging and security services released Tuesday. But the company has removed the "beta" tags from all of these services — indicating they're no longer in testing — and it's billing the total package as greater than the sum of its parts.

"The key point is that the end-to-end experience is what's finally coming out of beta," said Brian Hall, general manager of the Windows Live Business Group.

Included in the suite are programs such as Windows Live Mail, designed to allow users to work with multiple e-mail accounts — including ones from Microsoft competitors Google and Yahoo — without opening a Web browser.

It's part of the company's effort to better integrate its highly profitable desktop operating-system software, Windows, with increasingly popular advertising-funded online services, where it faces stiffer competition.

The online services in Windows Live will provide a consistent user interface and draw from the same list of contacts, Hall said.

It remains to be seen whether that integration will be a compelling reason for consumers to switch to, or stick with, Windows Live.

"Consumers tend to pick the best service for each individual thing that they're trying to do," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Kirkland-based Directions on Microsoft. "I think for Live to succeed, they have to have best-of-breed services."

Microsoft is pouring significant resources into making sure you know about this release. A Web-focused marketing campaign aims to deliver 12.5 billion advertising impressions for the service.

"The current Hotmail base and the current Windows Live Messenger base will be more than aware that there's a new version of Windows Live available," Hall said.

The company has the most-used e-mail and messenger services globally, Hall said.

Windows Live has perplexed even those who follow it closely. At one time last summer, there were more than 20 products and services under some variation of the Live brand.

"They came at it with such a scattered approach; they've got some work to do," said Kip Kniskern, a contributor to LiveSide.net, an independent Web site that tracks Microsoft's services efforts. "I think they kind of dug themselves a hole" when it comes to describing the services to consumers.

That's changing, though, Kniskern said. "I do think that their approach now is more focused than it was and their message about what Windows Live is is fairly clear and narrower than it was in the past."

Microsoft is investing billions in its software-plus-services strategy, including the construction of giant data centers around the world to support online services such as Windows Live.

Two more $500 million projects are in the works. One data center was announced Tuesday for Dublin, Ireland. It will be the first outside the U.S.

Crain's Chicago Business quoted unnamed sources saying Microsoft will occupy another in Northlake, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

Others are under way in Quincy, Grant County, and San Antonio, Texas.

Absent from the Windows Live release are two long-awaited pieces of the puzzle: Windows Live SkyDrive, an online storage service, and Windows Live Calendar.

A new test version of the calendar service is due out this week. Hall said both services need more testing before they can be released to hundreds of millions of users.

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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