The Windows Live package of products represents Microsoft's attempt to serve and integrate a broad array of dynamic, online services. These Web 2.0 tools include those for e-mail, mapping, scheduling, instant messaging, managing RSS feeds, bookmarking, and vertical search. Many of these free products remain in beta testing. This list will continue to evolve as Microsoft updates and adds Windows Live products. See our 10 favorite Windows Live tools here.
The download and installation of Windows Live Writer beta took us less than five minutes on a Windows XP machine. No Windows Live ID is required. Once we opened Writer, it walked us through configuring the program for our personal blog. You can use Writer to make posts to a Windows Live Spaces blog or to a blog hosted by Blogger, LiveJournal, TypePad, or WordPress. Windows Live Writer beta also offers MovableType, RSD, and MetaWeblog support.
We gave Writer beta the URL, the username, and the password for our TypePad blog and sat back for several minutes while Writer beta said it was detecting our editing style. Writer verified the name and location of our blog, then opened a blank page with the same background color and font type as our blog so that we could compose prose and insert images instantly. A drop-down menu of categories let us choose from among the tags we'd used to categorize our posts in the past. Unfortunately, Writer did not import our past blog posts, a feature we'd like to see added so that we could archive and refer to our content in one locally saved place.
Later, we added our Windows Live Spaces blog to Writer, which again displayed our blog's formatting as it renders within Internet Explorer. Writer let us switch back and forth between our pair of blog sites with a quick pick from a top drop-down menu.
The interface is self-explanatory, featuring a blog composition pane in the center and drop-down menus and formatting icons on top that link to Writer beta's features. You can view a post in progress, see a preview of the published version, or view the HTML source code. A list of recent posts appears along the collapsible right edge of the screen.
As other Windows Live services play well with each other, Writer integrates with Microsoft's next-generation online mapping tool. You can insert customized Windows Live Local beta maps into your blog post, complete with detailed routes and descriptions and Local's Bird's Eye views. To write a blog entry about eating organic lunches in downtown San Francisco, we dropped in maps to show readers where to walk. You can customize maps after inserting them, should you change your mind about whether to show, say, an aerial view instead of a road map or to pick a different place altogether. Click a map within the blog composition window, and you can jump to Windows Live Local to sign in and save that content. When a visitor to your blog clicks the map you've embedded, a new browser window pops up, directing them to a Windows Live Local beta map that they can manipulate (it would be even cooler if readers could manipulate the map on your blog without leaving the page).
When inserting an image, you can tell Writer beta to upload it automatically to your blogging service or to transfer it to your blog via FTP. It's handy that Writer lets you change a picture's size and brightness and add effects, such as a drop shadow or sepia tone. However, during our preliminary tests, we didn't find any shortcuts for inserting a table or embedding videos or music files into a blog entry.
We like that Writer beta lets you ping servers easily at Technorati, Icerocket, and elsewhere to tell the world you've posted a new entry, which is a clunky manual process in TypePad. And it was easy to manage TrackBacks and Comments settings within Writer.
Windows Live Writer beta is a preview product, not a final release, so there are some testing glitches. Unfortunately, Writer mysteriously shut down while we were tweaking an image. We're glad that we could save a draft of our blog and later pick up online where we left off, but we couldn't retrieve a draft of a blog entry saved remotely at our TypePad account. And while we could add categories imported from our TypePad account, we couldn't figure out how to add new tags. During our tests, a searchable online knowledge base for Windows Live Writer beta contained only two topics, but that section will probably be expanded.
We like the easy setup, the straightforward layout, and the mapping tie-ins within Windows Live Writer beta, and we're curious to see how this product will change as Microsoft and third-party developers add enhancements.