What is Windows Live?

As late as early June, I noticed that folks attending Microsoft's TechEd trade show seemed to avoid the Windows Live booth because they simply don't know what the service really was. And there are many who think they know what it is and dismiss it because it can't have any relevance today. Or can it?

So what is Windows Live? If you're thinking it's just meek retaliation to the Web service juggernaut that Google is becoming, you're only partially right. Sure, Google's announcements -- and even more recently, news from Yahoo and others -- are spurring Windows Live announcements to keep Microsoft's cutting-edge Internet relevance alive. But the product responses themselves are neither brand-new nor meek. Redmond's been planning this for some time.

The base set of services in Windows Live ( numbers 18. They go as follows: Live Search,, Live Toolbar, Live QnA, Office Live, Live Mail Desktop, Live Mail, Live Shopping, Live Product Search, Live Expo, Live Local, Live Safety Center, Live Academic, Live Favorites, Live Search Mobile, Live OneCare, Live Custom Domains, and Live Messenger. Naturally, everything here is beta except for Custom Domains, OneCare, Messenger, Favorites, Shopping, and Product Search.

Most of these services are self-explanatory and most are oriented toward personal computing rather than corporate computing. I'm going to be a bit blunt and slightly simplistic here, but this is how I see most of the Live services breaking down:

Live Search is an updated version of MSN Search; Live Toolbar, yet another Web browser toolbar; is Microsoft's customizable portal page; Shopping and Product Search, its answers to Amazon and Froogle, respectively; Live Local, the reply to Google Maps and Mapquest; QnA, the answer to Yahoo Groups; Live Mail Desktop, the counter-punch to Google Mail, although with some very sexy mail client features culled from Outlook Web Access; and Live Expo is a burgeoning Microsoft iteration of eBay or Craigslist.

Live Academic is a search engine devoted solely to academic content -- research journals and such -- for which I don't know a direct competitor off the top of my head. Windows Live Search Mobile is supposed to deliver all the power of the updated Live Search engine in a format suitable for Windows Mobile 5 pocket devices.

So where's the beef for corporate America? Fortunately, it's mostly in the nonbeta offerings. Microsoft Safety Center is first: a stable and surprisingly thorough malware checker and PC Health diagnostics check, free for the asking. It won't replace corporate anti-virus, anti-spam, or even disk defragger applications, but it's a great place to start a workstation diagnostic process.

OneCare is an always-on extension of Safety Center. You get the security checking and the basic diagnostic protection, but it also adds updated firewalls, automatic tune-up processes, and even does specific file backups on a scheduled basis. Yeah, this requires a bit of client-side software installation, but it's a lot of oomph for a free product. The only caveat is that I haven't tested this for performance overhead, so you might want to check that before installing it on lots of PCs.

For virtual enterprises, there's Live Custom Domains and Office Live, and this is where some of the confusion starts. Office Live has nothing to do with pushing Microsoft Office productivity suite to the Web; Office Live allows you to host your own domain using Microsoft's hosting servers and also gives those users e-mail services -- using the advanced Live Desktop Mail client -- and Web design tools -- using a Live version of SharePoint's creation tools and templates. You'll get your own domain name, not some bastardization.

Custom Domains, on the other hand, allows owners of existing domains and Web sites to simply transfer their e-mail accounts to Microsoft's Hotmail service -- again, using their own domain names. A single account here can handle as many as 40 domain e-mail accounts with 250MB of storage apiece.

A further confusion is between Live Mail and Live Mail Desktop. Both of these are beta services, but the bottom line is that Live Mail is using the most advanced Microsoft Webmail client, whereas Live Mail Desktop uses a client that seems to be one generation back but allows access to other e-mail services, including AOL and Google.

The next Live product to make waves will be Windows Live ID, which will replace Passport and includes an updated UI and a sign-in assistant. Even more importantly, Live ID will be accessible as Microsoft-style Web service, so developers of third-party Web sites can use it.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of Windows Live. Microsoft has made grand announcements on the future of the platform, including hints of a Web version of Microsoft Office and other Microsoft applications, but all of that is many moons away and certainly subject to change should market interest shift away from running everything through a browser. The here and now -- for businesses, anyway -- is a nice set of security and diagnostic tools and a very competitive Web and e-mail hosting service.