has launched a public beta of its Windows Live Messenger, the next-generation of its instant messenger software with a number of new communications features.
The software has been in testing since December but only by invitation. This is the first public beta, which can be downloaded from the Windows Live Ideas Web site.
One of the major features of Live Messenger is support for Internet telephony
The international calling is done in partnership with Verizon Communications. Both Royal Philips Electronics and Uniden will offer cordless phones designed exclusively for Windows Live Messenger, although they will work on both Internet and traditional land-based phones. The Uniden phone will be sold through Best Buy, according to Karin Muskopf, MSN Product Manager.
Live Messenger sports a number of improvements over previous versions as well as some new features. One of the new features, Sharing Folders, is the Nocturnal technology developed at Microsoft Research.
Drag a file into the Sharing Folder and it will be propagated in the background to everyone on your contact list, or omit those you specify. With features like this and Internet telephony, Muskopf said Live Messenger is definitely for broadband use and not dial-up.
Live Messenger also features Live Contacts, a method of sharing and storing personal information on contacts similar to Plaxo. Contacts are integrated and accessible via Live Messenger, Live Mail and MSN Spaces. Users can also send IMs to their offline friends and they will receive the message when they log back on.
The cross-product integration, along with a streamlined UI, is what customers have asked for, said Muskopf. “This makes information access easier for customers to obtain,” she said. “We’ve heard from our customers that these are features they want to see.”
Joe Wilcox, senior analyst for Jupiter Research, said there are a lot of bells and whistles, but also some interesting features, like Real’s Rhapsody digital music subscription service. While not revolutionary, Wilcox found Live Messenger to be a decent evolution in the product.
“Ultimately, what Microsoft wants to do is connect all the pieces together, and you can see the foundation for that here,” he said. “In many ways, the anchor product for all of Windows Live should be Windows Messenger. So it’s a lot of little things that reach out and touch other stuff.”
Muskopf said the final version of Live Messenger is due by the end of the year, but could not be more specific. It will run on all versions of Windows XP and the forthcoming Microsoft Vista operating system.