When software I use frequently comes into beta, I usually try to get my hands on it as soon as I can to see what is changing, and to be a part of the process of reporting things I find, so I can help (in whatever small way) to mold the product as I would like to see it.

As you might expect, with Microsoft this has been a less than satisfactory arrangement, as I firmly believe that no user actually contributes anything that Microsoft uses for anything other than squashing bugs – even then, I have reported behaviors in the past that, because of the timing, came back being explained away as “features”. Many people believe that is a joke when people write about it, but has been true on at least one occasion for me.

So this time, with the Live Essentials, I have held back, letting the others willing to do the bug reporting for Microsoft do the job, while I waited for something I hoped would be truly great.

It appears that, at least as far as Messenger and Live Writer are concerned, the major changes are cosmetic, making the applications fit in more with Vista and Windows 7, as they are no longer constrained by the need to be usable on Windows XP. I believed this was a bad decision when announced, and I still remain convinced of it.

I have used the new Messenger, and I find many things about it annoying, though it is not fully “out of beta”, so there is some hope. With Live Writer, something I use each day (this is being composed using WLW), I see that the Digital Inspiration site has a more than cursory explanation of the changes in the newest version, and they are all of the cosmetic variety with an exception of how pictures are handled.

Microsoft is expected to unveil the next version of Windows Live Essentials (codenamed Windows Live Wave 4) in the coming days.

The suite offers an impressive array of free software programs including Windows Live Writer (for blogging), Movie Maker (for editing videos), Photo Gallery (for managing pictures) and Windows Live Mail (an excellent desktop email client).

I have been writing this blog using the new Windows Live Writer since the past week and am a bit surprised to find that, except for a couple of cosmetic changes to the interface, there’re no new features in the software.

Writer now sports the ribbon with contextual tabs and therefore almost feels like part of the Office family.

If you are a power user, who likes working with keyboard shortcuts, you can always minimize the ribbon and get more writing space. You’ll however still need the ribbon for inserting pictures in the your blog posts because the good old CTRL+L shortcut has been reassigned for left alignment and I don’t know if there’s a new shortcut for insert pictures except for Alt –> I –> E –> C.

The sidebar in Live Writer is gone and some of the common tasks, especially those related to drafts, have moved to the main menu. If you also prefers saving drafts online instead of the local disk, you may find the new location a bit inconvenient.

This leaves me wondering if I will upgrade to it or not. I use the sidebar, and I hate the ribbon, as most people who have learned previous methods on Microsoft software have.  My ultimate decision will now be based upon whether a few very pesky bugs are fixed – no fix, no update.

Personal bloggers will love the new image enhancements in Writer. You can now quickly add new effects and borders to your pictures without requiring an external image editor. The downside is that Writer, like in the previous versions, adds inline CSS styles to your pictures and there’s no way to disable that setting.

I can only imagine what will happen with the interactions between the changes in WLW and the horrendous editor included in WordPress, which tries to re-edit a post any time you make the slightest change from the Dashboard. For those that don’t fully understand, the problem with WordPress in general is that the editor, ostensibly designed to give WYSIWYG results, does no such thing. In fact most of the time, the results are far from it. (For one small example, I use an <hr/> tag [horizontal line across the page] above and below  the Technorati tags in my posts, but it no longer shows up, effectively edited out by the WordPress changes.)

The input boxes where you add tags and categories to a post have moved up and the advanced post properties – like post slug, post excerpt, etc. – are now hidden by default under the “View all” menu.

Maybe the Writer team is trying to widen the appeal by making the interface more simple but if you have been using this software for a length of time, you may be a little disappointed as some of the regular tasks now require a few extra steps.

Microsoft may actually widen use among the casual users…those who post something to their Live Spaces account every two to three months, but for us that have come to know how things work, and use the software multiple times per week, the usage will probably drop.

This is one of those times when Microsoft could easily implement a secondary interface, much as the XP style menu system was put into Vista, allowing a person to have a familiar and for them, more usable interface. But it looks as though someone on the design team at Microsoft is wanting to bend the users to their own will, and way of doing things. This is similar to the changes in the start menu in Windows 7, which was anathema to anyone having an ordered mind and logical way of doing things.

Oh well. Microsoft tries to gain users by trying for usability gains, in the mould of Apple, but seems to fail miserably each time. (Perhaps a cut and paste, with a small number of anti-lawsuit changes would work best.)

[if you follow the link to Digital Inspiration, there are lots of pictures showing the changes described]

As I am putting the finishing touches on this article, I wonder how many of the available plug-ins for Writer this version will break…

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abstract_reality some will applaud the new look of WLW, others will think that the guys working on this at Microsoft must be caught in some altered form of reality.