Microsoft Corp. is planning a Windows Live update in the coming weeks that adds social networking features to the software maker's instant messaging program, free Hotmail e-mail service and other sites.
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This overhaul positions the software maker as a competitor to News Corp.'s MySpace, Facebook and other popular online hangouts. Microsoft claims hundreds of millions of Web e-mail and instant messenger users, but is still seen as a laggard when it comes to understanding the Internet.
In the newer version of Windows Live, disparate contact lists from Live Messenger, Hotmail and Spaces, Microsoft's blog network, are pulled together into one place. Users can set up a "network" of people from that list, then swap details of their daily online lives with friends.
An area on the redesigned Windows Live home page could show, for example, a running list of friends' Twitter messages, Flickr photo uploads, Yelp reviews and WordPress blog entries. A chunk of the Live Messenger buddy list window will also display those tidbits from friends' activities on Microsoft partners' sites.
When users add new digital pictures to the "photos" section of Windows Live, those snapshots will be shared with their network of friends, who can identify themselves in the photos or leave comments. And a new "groups" feature lets people invite friends to an online group page where they can upload photos, post messages and share events on a calendar.
With those improvements, Windows Live will become more similar to Facebook, one of the biggest online hangouts in the U.S. Brian Hall, general manager for Windows Live, said Wednesday that Microsoft's aim is to bring the best features from sites like MySpace and Facebook — the top two social networking sites in the U.S. — to Windows Live.
"What we see the focus needing to be now is, essentially, on the race to simplify the Web," Hall said. "I shouldn't have to do the same thing on multiple networks. ... That's the core problem that we're solving."
In an interview, Hall acknowledged that established Facebook or MySpace users aren't likely switch to Windows Live. And so far, Microsoft hasn't struck a deal with either of those sites to pull status messages and other details into Windows Live, though Hall said to "stay tuned."
Starting in early 2009, Microsoft is also making a handful of changes to Hotmail. With the new version, PC users can send messages from any of their POP-enabled e-mail accounts — another Hotmail address or a Gmail address, for instance — and read Hotmail in other programs that support POP e-mail technology. The software maker also built instant messaging capabilities into Hotmail.