This week we continue in a series of experiences with features and improvements coming in the next version of Microsoft’s client desktop operating system, Windows 7 and Windows Live wave 3 services. Windows Live Messenger 9.0 is Microsoft’s latest version of its Instant Messaging software that allows you to communicate by text, video or ink with Hotmail, MSN, Live and even Yahoo! contacts. Windows Live Messenger’s support of standard features such as video conferencing I believe make it the ultimate social networking tool regardless of all the Facebook’s and My Spaces out there. Version 9 in particular focuses deeply on social networking and personalization. Creating a personal identity with the service and expressing it to others through your contacts is one of the major benefits of this new update.
Setting up Messenger and First sign in experiences (click to enlarge)
You can obtain Windows Live Messenger currently in BETA form by going to http://download.live.com I have been working with Build 14.0.5027.908 released as part of the public BETA of Windows Live Wave 3 suite over a couple of months now. I do hope Microsoft decides to make components of the suite available as stand alone installers although you can pick and choose which programs you want during the wizard. If you have used Windows Live Messenger before, getting started with the service is a cinch. There are no clear differences between the sign in screen in version 9.0 compared to 8.5. Your personalization such as themes and color scheme is retained if you upgrade from a previous version.
Signing in for the first time you can clearly see some differences in the contacts interface, large Vista profile displays replace Messenger buddy icons. Its a bit overwhelming at first so the first thing I did was to customize that feature to display the much smaller familiar indicators which are now square dots represented by different colors such as:
Green – Available/Online, Orange – Away, Red – Busy, Grey semi transparent – Offline,
Any color with a red slash – Blocked
Animated Display glistens when you change your status
When you are not signed in, WLM 9 displays just a single Messenger buddy icon with red X over it similar to not connected to a Network status icon in the Vista notification Area. The old Messenger business card is now consolidated into a floating widget with a list of options such as: Sending an offline instant message, Email, Enter a mobile number, View contact card and online profile. The open your email inbox button is more distinctive with a gold icon envelope along with a number indicating the amount of messages you have unread. ‘What’s new list’ which I have turned off is taking a page from the ad banner in the main messenger window by advertising fellow contact activities, whether they have changed a background, playing a song or changed their personal messages. Because of the limitation of my screen resolution on my desktop I have turned it off, but on my laptop its on. Its a cool feature that makes engaging with your friends a lot more fun and of course social.
Contact widget now simplified
Your display picture plays a distinctive role in this new release giving you visual cues that clearly identify you or your contacts status. Each time you change your status, your Display picture animates with a cool glistening effect. Speaking of display pictures, Messenger 9 includes some new bundled animated gifs called WeeMee’s that are not really impressive but are ok, they include shooting star, musical notes, city light, fish tank and sunlight. You can download additional ones and I am sure there will be more available once the service is finalized. Since we are on the topic of themes, I got to say its probably the most dramatic in this release and focuses on making you express yourself clearly in your conversations. A contact can now see your theme and you can see theirs, in addition to that they are customizable and they blend in really nicely.
Scenes and WeeMee’s allow you to customize your visual experience
You can choose a background header known as a ‘Scene’ along with a color for the main window, WLM 9 comes with 8 of them. I hope there are more by the final release although you are free to create your own, I do like the bundled ones. I would also like the option of themes applied across all services, so a Scene color scheme and background image is also reflected in my Live Messenger on other PCs, Live Hotmail and Spaces for example. Also, changing your Scene is not as obvious as one would think, since its a hidden tool that is activated when you hover your mouse pointer over the upper right hand corner of the main window which folds back like a creased page revealing a paint brush. Maybe it would have been better to make it be a button beside the search box on the main window, since there are other buttons there for changing the appearance of contacts, adding a contact or group and show drop down menus.
Groups – grouping contacts is a regular activity for messenger users. Its especially necessary if you have a lot of IM contacts that range in colleagues, friends and family and would like to make it easier to differentiate them for easier management, discovery and communication. WLM 9 adds a dedicated groups feature that goes beyond just creating organized groups for your contacts. These groups are sociable allowing you to invite friends and be invited to your own friends groups. Creating a Group is very simple, just click the ‘Add a contact or group’ button next to the search box > click ‘Create group’. This will start the ‘Create a group’ wizard, just type in the name of your group, and click Next. The wizard will create your group and at the end you can start adding contacts, click next and ‘Done’ to confirm the invitation. One problem I discovered during the adding process, you could not scroll through your contact list in the main window, so when you wanted to reference an existing contact, you were stuck doing so from memory or opening up your Live Contacts to do so.
A nice check off list from your IM contact list would also have been nice to send out mass invitations. There is another limitation, you are limited to only 20 members in your group which I think is a shame. I have friends who share the same interest and that goes well beyond 20 friends. Hopefully this limit will change by either the final version or post WLM 9 RTW. It is believed that Groups will be a replacement for MSN Groups now called Windows Live Groups (surprise), which makes it even more difficult for groups to be a viable solution for persons who want to be able to do something on a large scale. The inability to create subgroups or sub-topic groups is something I wish the WLM 9 Team could have worked on. When you look at the ease of use provided by Facebook to easily create a Group and invite as many people as you want or have as many people as you want join, its quite obvious who is in its infancy and who delivers a mature social experience in this regard.
Conversation windows 8.5 left, 9.0 right
Favorites – Its true, we have a person or group of persons we regularly chat with on our contact list. WLM 9 emphasizes this with the new ‘Favorites’ group which is easily identified by a Star. There are a couple ways to get your special contacts into the Favorites group, you can easily drag and drop drop into that group, right click the Favorites title and click ‘Edit Favorites’ and click your contact from the displayed list, you can also do a quick filtered search. The significance is not really clear, I already had a list called colleague with all the friends I chat with regularly, so Favorites is really just a pre-canned feature for those who never thought of simply creating a ‘New Category’ and dragging existing contacts into it. The only difference I see is that, Favorites IM contacts display pictures are larger and its the first group that you see when you log into Messenger. If you find the large display pictures distracting, you can customize them by clicking the "Change Contact list layout" button or going to Show Menu > Tools > Options > Layout and choose and appropriate size. It would still be nice if the WLM Team could add support for rearranging categories themselves. I would love to have my Family category be second after the Favorites group and the ability to turn an existing category into a second set of Favorites group also.
Search – an essential feature especially if you have have hundreds of contacts. The Search facility itself does not feature any major changes, the same filtered Search experience is what you can expect. It would be nice to have Boolean logic that can deliver better results and information about your contact list. For instance, if I do a search for ‘kind: blocked’ all the contacts that are blocked on my list show up or if I do a search ‘available’ all the contacts on my list that are available show up or ‘recent: conversations’. It makes it especially convenient when you have a lot of contacts in different categories. I would also like to see a feature of search that integrates with Groups, I give some of my IM contacts a Nickname, each with the word ‘HEART’. When I do a filtered search, it would be nice to to have the option of creating an on the fly group from all these contacts with HEART in their name.
What’s new in options:
Layout – here you can customize the layout of your contact list, which includes setting the display picture size that’s right for you, showing the Tab bar, Favorites or What’s new list. Contacts can be labeled by Display name or First and Last name and you can organize contacts into Categories or Online Status. Contacts can also be set to be sorted by Status or alphabetically by default. Users have the option of controlling offline contacts to either show in a separate category or separate into categories such as Offline or SMS.
Sign in now replaces General option from 8.5, now listing options for how Messenger starts up and signs into the service. A new option available in this category is ‘Sign in at more than one place’. Security reasons might come to mind if you plan to do this in a public setting, but if you leave your computer on at home and sign into Messenger at work you will be able to sign in at both locations and receive IM messages from both places. Its also great for working with different devices, so you can stay signed in on a mobile phone and your desktop at the same time. Also, options applied on one device, whether its closing a window or receiving a message are applied to all devices. You do have the option of changing how this works whether you want to Keep signed in or sign yourself out everywhere else, you can also define locations by giving it a name. This feature is specific to WLM 9.0.
Alerts and Sounds have been separated into different categories. Alerts displays its traditional options such as when a Contact comes online, messages received and email alerts. Sounds itself contains some dramatic changes giving reason to why its now separated. Here you can assign a collection of pre-canned sounds for different alerts such as: Contacts Sign in, new instant messages, email message, incoming voice or video call, outgoing voice or video call, new Windows Live Alert and even Nudges. Users can have a distinct ‘Sign in’ sound when they come online; these range in Band intro, Electric Guitar, Gong or your own personal song from your music library. Just click Add New Sound, browse to where the song is located, select it and use the Cropping tool to define a 5 second piece of the song you find appropriate with the option of Fade in and Fade Out. Its really cool, but I have discovered some users are beginning to annoy me with their custom sounds, so I did the next best thing ‘Mute my contacts ‘Signature sound’. 🙂
Phone – Provides the option of setting your mobile phone at http://mobile.live.com/signup to receive messages from your contacts. Unfortunately, none of the carriers here in Jamaica such as Digicel, Cable & Wireless (LIME) and CLARO are supported, meaning its at US thing for now.
Messages includes some added options for setting up PhotoIM invitations which is a new way of sharing your photos. Sharing Folders seems to be gone.
Signing into multiple locations is a cinch. (click to enlarge)
For users of older versions of Messenger (which is a lot), a lot of the social experiences that you would get from two users running WLM 9.0 won’t be available to you. A WLM 9 user chatting with a WLM 8.5 user results in just a standard conversation window with the exception of custom color, you also don’t get the option of doing Photo Sharing with older versions of Messenger. But the fact that people who use Messenger often upgrade to the latest version and Microsoft’s advertising of the latest version in older versions makes that a non issue. There are still some small benefits which we will discuss, such as the new Status Display frames are part of the conversation window, you get the same conversation layout which is a grouping of sequential messages. This can be turned off in Tools > Options > Messages if you prefer the old layout. The Display pictures are now moved over to the left side of the window and are significantly larger, you can adjust this or turn them off all together. The ‘Enter your message here’ is more compact compared to 8.5 but at the same time its much neater and organized. A horizontal scroll list toolbar displays your emoticon gallery, winks, nudges, voice clips, font and window background options. You can also easily switch between handwriting and keyboard text there.
Sharing Photos has never been this fun!
Probably the best feature added to conversations in Windows Live Messenger 9, but could have exceeded expectations by supporting video sharing like Yahoo! Messenger. I love the ability to really engage with friends, and find features like sharing photos a great way to do that. Your photo libraries and contacts can be viewed at the same time. To initiate Photo-sharing, simply click the Photos button in the conversation window to send an invitation to the recipient which must be accepted. Once that is done, photos can be added by you or the other person which are displayed in a slideshow format within the conversation window with messages displayed as commentary. You can even revert the window back to full conversation and view small thumbnails at the top of the window.
Yahoo! vs. Live
Its clear who is innovating and winning at the same time. Yahoo Messenger which is currently at version 9 released not too long ago doesn’t offer anything significantly new from version 8.1. Releases of Windows Live Messenger have been rapid and constantly bringing new features like Nudges, Ink recognition, tight integration across Windows Live services and now respectable social networking capabilities. The only thing I see thats new in Yahoo! is the ability to change the skin and share videos from YouTube easily, something I hope the WLM Team sees and also implements. The social networking aspects of WLM are a good start but are still in their infancy, over time I do hope they mature and focus better on the needs of users, Groups for instance needs to go beyond 20 members.
I love the deep customizations, I love the synergies between the Live Services and Windows. Features like Scenes, WeeMee’s are nice additions that add continued fun to a string of interactive features Messenger has been bringing to users over past six versions. The interface is slick but at times it can seem crowded and I hope this does not affect the programs future. It would be nice to have a light mode that users can sign in with just essentials to do text messaging with users since it takes a while depending on your connection to load all these features when you use the service on a different computer. I would also like if your message history could be synced to travel with you wherever you go, but I guess that’s where Live Mesh comes in. The new multiple sign in feature will be great for persons who use IM across multiple devices particular cell phones and to keep the conversation between contacts seamless across them uninterrupted. Should you upgrade? This a weird question to ask, its a free product, small, takes no time to download and its not disruptive as upgrading your Office suite or web browser. So, yeah I say, definitely download it and it won’t be a great experience unless all or most of your contacts are using the latest version. I didn’t get to look at everything in this short experimental preview such as Video Conferencing, but I will be giving you an update before the service goes final, so stay tuned.
Thanks Jeff Hatfield for the help with Photo Sharing. 🙂