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Tue 8 Nov 2005 04:00 AM

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Future fantastic?

Last week Microsoft gave a sneak peek of its forthcoming ‘Windows Live’ internet offering. This comprises a whole host of new software services and innovations, some of which are available to tinker with online now. Now let’s hope the firm also improves its blog offer too…

|~||~||~|Last week Microsoft gave a sneak peek of its forthcoming ‘Windows Live’ internet offering. This comprises a whole host of new software services and innovations, some of which are available to tinker with online now. Now let’s hope the firm also improves its blog offer too…

Since Mr. Gates and his team of whiz kids revealed some details of Windows Live a few days back, yours truly has been intermittently checking out what’s looking likely to be hot and which software services have a little way to go yet.

First off, what is Windows Live? Well it isn’t a new version of Windows that’s for sure. Instead, it’s a rather disparate yet interesting set of online products and services, all cobbled together and designed to help you pull your digital content together, keep your PC safe, socialise and communicate online and all sorts of other varied stuff.

Perhaps the key component is the portal www.live.com (how much MS paid for that domain I can only imagine). Very similar in look and feel to www.start.com, which was developed previously on MSN (Microsoft Network), this is effectively a one-stop shop for all your favourite internet content.

For example, not only can you use this to keep all your favoured RSS feeds in one place, but in the future you’ll be able to use it to view recently opened files too, plus you can sign in to Hotmail (soon to be called Live Mail) and view and compose messages from your live.com homepage.

All good stuff so far then, though on the flipside the recommended default RSS feeds are - of course - all US-centric (when will MS learn that there are some of us exist outside the US, even when a technology is still in Beta testing?), plus Microsoft would be well advised to build in some podcast aggregator functionality so that Live.com can take on the likes of iPodder. Non-techie types will no doubt lose their respective rags over Live.com’s relative complexity, plus bizarrely some of the portal’s option buttons (such as those that let you display more news headlines for instance) only show up when you run the mouse pointer over otherwise-blank spaces. This simply feels rough rather than clever.

Microsoft will also pull some of its recent consumer developments into the Windows Live fold, such as OneCare – its previously announced PC health subscription service, which will become ‘OneCare Live’, and the next version of MSN Messenger, which looks likely to be a much hotter app than the version that has been left behind of late by the ever impressive Yahoo! Messenger and Google’s IP-ready Talk program.

As for the next version of Hotmail, when this arrives - in the form of ‘Live Mail’ - it will let you load up messages without having to open a new web page (a sure-fire winning idea for speed-hungry netizens) and you’ll be able to drag-and-drop messages into folders too, as you can now when moving news feeds into the main pane of your personal live.com page.

Some impressive tweaks and developments then. In the case of live.com in particular, some serious and effective work has been done, and the features we can expect from some of the other apps – such as Live Messenger’s IP functions - will appeal to many.

But - and there certainly is a but here - where Microsoft needs to direct its Redmond software developers now, is back to a place which most of them no doubt hoped they’d never again tread. And that’s the dark, no-doubt musty broom cupboard known as Spaces Programming.

Launched roughly a year ago under the moniker ‘MSN spaces’ (http://spaces.msn.com) and due to be called ‘Live Spaces’ in the future, MSN’s effort at a blogging portal is, well, dire. And then some.

I tell you this from a position of both knowledge and experience, as I’ve spent the entire year of Spaces’ existence so far trying – without success – to get the darn thing to work properly. I know I stand to embarrass myself here, as it’s bad enough admitting to being a blogger, without then adding that the page you use to exhibit your mutterings looks cheap and is a nightmare to use, but someone has to make this point, and if it saves you from signing up to Spaces (for the time being at least), then it’s worth it.

Compared to Google’s easy-to-use, smooth-looking blogger.com, which is arguably the most popular hosting portal of the moment, Microsoft’s version needs a complete rethink. For instance, it’s all very well trying to usurp Blogger by including a built-in photo album, but if this means well-meaning bloggers like me having to notate every step we take, in the hope that we’ll be able to one day figure out why this function works one time out of fifteen, then Mr. Gates and co. might as well cash in their stocks and call it a day.

Put it this way: if I had a dollar for each time I’d uploaded a batch of photos, expecting (or hoping with all digits crossed) that these would appear in my Space’s photo album, but only to see them arrive blank, then I’d have, well, 14 dollars to be exact.

And where am I located? Where does my MSN Spaces profile tell the world is my home? Surely Microsoft’s crack Spaces team can get that right, with a little help from me telling them? ‘Dubayy’. So says Microsoft, and I can’t persuade them otherwise.

Well, at the very least, your web page must at least look good, right? This wondrous Spaces blog of which you speak Mr. Editor? If only. You’re dreaming. It looks like Hotmail, a couple of incarnations ago.

I’ll stop though, as I don’t want to be unfair. At present Windows Live is a seriously future-facing gathering of cool ideas, and it will no doubt help Microsoft gain back some ground from Google in the areas of desktop content, webmail and IP-enabled chat. But as for Spaces Mr. Gates, sort it out! Like my admitting to being an occasional blogger - and Windows’ Labs Editor recently blowing himself up with the help of a temperamental power supply - it’s just embarrassing. And the biggest consumer software company in the world should be anything but that.

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