The latest installment of my Hands On Test Drive series features Microsoft Live Messenger 188.8.131.52.3921.717 M2 (beta build). This beta version was released to beta testers last week from Microsoft Connect Program, and I got my copy from a friend. I instantly installed it on my system, but had problems signing in. So I switched back to version 8.5. Well I decided to give it another try today and, thankfully, it worked.
Microsoft have taken a bold step transforming the UI to Windows Presentation Foundation, resembling the Wave 3, and it looks good. They trade off here is that it takes too much memory (about 75 MB) in Windows XP. Nevertheless, the UI is smooth and responsive compared to the previous versions or any other WPF application for that matter.
You will have to remove the previous versions to install this one, and once started, it will present you with a slightly modified welcome screen. The change here is the addition of a few links that point to the beta program. You will get a message notifying you that “the login process might take longer than usual”. This is very much accurate, infact it takes about 5 times longer than Live Messenger 8.5. I also had problems logging in first, but that issue appears to be resolved now.
Once logged in, you will see the good ol’ Live Messenger 8.5 interface drawn on what appears to be WPF. There are a minor tweaks here as well, like the addition of the Favorites group, where you can Copy your favorite contacts, and they would appear as thumbnails. I don’t have tabs enabled for my account so I don’t know how they are drawn (I’ll appreciate if any reader can comment about that). You can change your display picture to an animated one, and the newest and the coolest feature is Signature Sounds (more below). Right clicking on the contacts exposes some new features, like personalized contact sounds.
The messenger window is totally redesigned with a brand new UI, strongly suggesting that it is indeed done with WPF. For a casual user of the previous version, the UI may be daunting is it departs from the right-handed pane style. The display picture pane is now on the left side, and the emoticon/wink toolbar below the textbox. You also get annoying little dots on every new line of the messages. For some reason, the messenger always displays webcam option even if no webcam is present. A few new emoticons have been added as well as some animated display pictures.
There are a bundle of new features introduced with this iteration of the messenger. Most notably, Microsoft go the GTalk way, and offer a Messenger API for the first time. This will allow other services to interact with the messenger, and also adding the possibility of plugins. Another big feature (not in this build though) is the ability to hold an Audio/Video conference (a bit like NetMeeting) but now it appears it will debut in version 10.
Microsoft are also working on extending thier reach, and include AIM, XMPP, and ICQ compatibility, much like version 8, which introduced Yahoo! Chat. This is the first version of the messenger that supports what Microsoft calls Multiple Point of Presence; it allows you to simultaneously sign into the Windows Live Service from various machines. A built in spam filter called Anti-SPIM, which blocks all spammers, a good step towards security.
The most attractive features however, to me are Animated Display Pictures, and Signature Sounds. WLM9 supports animated GIF images to be set as display pictures. The quality is limited to 256 colors, and its a huge compromise on memory. On the other hand, the ability to set Signature Sound, a sound that your contacts hear when you sign in is great.
It works like this. First you select a sound file (WMA, MP3 or WAV), and the built-in editor will allow you to make a 5 sec clip of that sound. It supports simple Fade In and Fade Out effects, and presents a wave for like most sound editors. Once you select the sound, it uploads it to the Live Servers, and transfers to all your contacts. This process has bugs (discussed below) however, and should be used with caution.
You can also customize the messenger sounds for every contact, which includes new message and sign-in sound (overrides his Signature Sound). You can now also post click-able URLs into your status messages. There are other minor features present which would need a lot of time explaining so its best to try that out yourself, if you have got the beta version.
The most prominent bug in the messenger I discovered so far is its sync problem. This ranges from login to chats, causing a lot of pain. You may be prevented to login, and sometimes, messages aren’t delivered on time. A few of my friends also reported that the emoticons disappear sometimes, and a similar issue occurs with sounds. Since this is still in development stages, bugs would occur, but they are expected to be fixed in future revisions.
The newest version of the messenger looks like a very bold move forward. The ability to access the API and SPIM protection are great new features, as well as the interoperability with other IM products. Scheduled to be released with the Windows Live Services Wave 3, for Windows Vista, Windows XP and the Mac OSX, you can expect to get hands on this little toy in Q4 2008, or early 2009.
I will not be posting any download links for this as this violates Microsoft’s copyright, but you can join the Microsoft Connect program to get beta version of all their future products. Don’t forget to share your thoughts below.