Windows Live Messenger ready for prime time

Windows Live Messenger, the next version of MSN Messenger, will exit beta on Tuesday.

Windows Live Messenger, the next-generation version of Microsoft's instant messaging service for consumers, will be available for download in final form right after midnight Tuesday, U.S. Eastern Time.

The product will be posted as a free download at http://get.live.com/messenger/overview, the Redmond, Washington, company said Monday.

This release is a milestone for Microsoft's Windows Live program. Windows Live Messenger is not the first Windows Live service to launch globally in final form, but it is the first core, major one to do so, said Brooke Richardson, MSN group product manager.

Windows Live is a family of Web-based services that includes some, such as search and e-mail, previously branded under MSN. Also getting the Windows Live treatment are the company's search engine, consumer Web portal, Webmail service and PC security suite.

Microsoft is feeling the heat from small, niche players offering software as a service, as well as from larger competitors. For example, its nemesis Google has a growing menu of hosted software for consumers and businesses which includes spreadsheet, word processing, photo sharing, Web analytics and mapping applications.

Microsoft feels confident that Windows Live Messenger will set a good tone for the string of about 20 Windows Live offerings slated to launch globally and in final form this year. Beta versions of Windows Live Messenger were downloaded about 15 million times, Richardson said. The final version being released on Tuesday will be very similar in terms of features and user interface to the most recent beta version, she said. "The differences between the beta and the final version are mostly in performance," she said.

Microsoft will continue to support MSN Messenger, which until now has been the company's main consumer IM service. However, from now on, development efforts will be focused on Windows Live Messenger, whose client software runs only on Windows XP.

For example, only Windows Live Messenger, not MSN Messenger, will be interoperable with Yahoo's instant messaging service, she said. Microsoft and Yahoo said they would deliver the first phase of the services' integration in this year's second quarter. While declining to provide details, Richardson said they are on track to deliver that "very soon."

Windows Live Messenger provides video calls, Internet telephony, file sharing and integration with other Windows Live services, such as Windows Live Mail and Windows Live Search. Users will also find promotional material for Walt Disney Pictures' film "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest."

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