Windows Live "wave 3" is here, and after fumbling around with it for the better part of the morning, I’m thoroughly impressed. When Windows Live originally coalesced out of Hotmail and a handful of castaway MSN services a few years back, the platform suffered from a serious lack of cohesion, let alone any discernable direction. It’s had it’s share of growing pains and gaffes, but I’ve stuck with it (mainly because I’m a Hotmailer from way back), and today I feel like that loyalty has finally paid off.
For the longest time, Windows Live services had a "I just want to be your everything" mentality. Sure there were alot of different niche services, but none of them really matched the style or feature set of their individual competitors. Microsoft has made great strides in leveling the field by strengthening its core services, trimming the fat, and drastically improving and standardizing their UI.
With multiple updates (and many more to come in the next few months), the Windows Live brand is now firmly established as a major player in the Web services and social networking universe.
Microsoft decided to bring a couple of lesser-used services, Home and Profile, to the forefront. Home is a personalized, one-page summary that includes search, local information, selected photos (in a really slick scatter layout), avatar/presence, mail, network updates, and news. It’s so engaging that, in addition to checking it several times already, I’ve actually decided to replace Live Search with Home as my default home page in IE. Profile is Home’s public counterpart, it’s a one-page summary that includes personal information, updates, friends, notes, and favorite media lists.
Profile, specifically, reminds me alot of Facebook, minus all of the crappy apps and guestbook garbage. Instead Windows Live offers partnered apps (called Web Activities) so that Tweets, Pandora favorites, stumbles, and content from many other partners can actually aggregate on your profile page. To me, that’s a sign that Microsoft finally gets it: not everyone wants to use Windows Live exclusively for all of their social networking needs. My only concern is that the Profile page doesn’t get a snappy, intuitive URL like a Live Space, so I’m not sure how you’re supposed to advertise it to your non-Windows Live friends and family.
Another neat new feature that rolled out today is Live Groups, which is soon destined to send MSN Groups to the grave. While MSN Groups was little more than a glorified network discussion forums, Live Groups is designed around smaller, personal groups of friends and family (the key work here is small, ~20 members). Groups get a personalized URL, group email account, calendar, SkyDrive (5GB of additional storage), and discussion tools. The group can even have a custom avatar. I created a group for the Edwards family (here’s our avatar):
The Edwards Family
Spaces also got an overhaul, which mostly consisted of uncoupling services like Photos (which now reside with your other data on SkyDrive), adding a few new header and font options, and updating the avatar chicklet. Overall, it still feels largely unchanged. The more I understand the role of Profile, I think I’m in favor of paring Live Spaces down even further by removing the blog and lists, and allowing them to feed from the Profile page. I hope that there’s more for Live Spaces in store in the coming weeks and months.