Microsoft has a virtual monopoly on desktop operating systems with Windows and on office productivity with its Office suite - as well as a dominant share of the web browser market with Internet Explorer.
For many, though, Microsoft is the big, evil corporation robbing the defenseless masses, while Google is the Robin Hood of the web, altruistically delivering free goods and services. However, although you might not realise it, Microsoft also offers many of the same tools and services as Google - and also for free.
Although in many circles Hotmail gets about as much respect as AOL Instant Messenger or MySpace, Microsoft's free Webmail service is capable. Before Microsoft bought it, Hotmail was the first web-based email service, and one of the first to be free. The free Microsoft Outlook Hotmail Connector lets you view your Hotmail data from within Outlook, and Hotmail also supports Exchange Active Sync so your Hotmail email, contacts, and calendar can be automatically synced with devices like the iPhone or iPad. Exchange is Microsoft's messaging server used by many businesses for email, but Exchange Active Sync has emerged as a standard used by many devices to sync mail, contact, and calendar information.
Windows Live Essentials
Up through Windows Vista, the Windows operating system came preloaded with a variety of tools to get you started as soon as you booted up. However, a combination of customer complaints about "bloatware" and an effort by Microsoft to attract more users to Office led to the removal of most of those tools in Windows 7.
Microsoft didn't kill the tools, though; it simply moved many of them to the cloud, and began to offer them as a separate download called Windows Live Essentials - a package comprising 7 of the 11 tools discussed in this article. The lineup in Windows Live Essentials 2011 requires Windows 7, Vista SP2, Windows Server 2008 R2, or Server 2008 SP2. If you want them, though, you can download Windows Live Essentials for free and get a whole suite that includes:
- Windows Live Mail: Whereas Windows Live Hotmail is a web-based email service, Windows Live Mail is a desktop email client application that lets you add and view multiple email accounts - including Hotmail and Gmail - from one interface. For users who don't want to spend the money to get Outlook, Windows Live Mail performs many of the same functions for free, and is more than adequate as an email client for consumers and for SMBs (small and medium-size businesses). You can manage your email, contacts, calendar, RSS feeds, and newsgroups from within Windows Live Mail.
- Windows Live Messenger: At its core, Messenger is simply an instant messaging (IM) tool. Like any other IM app, it lets you communicate in real-time with contacts who also happen to use Messenger (or at least some third-party IM tool that connects with a Windows Live Messenger account). Unlike many IM services, though, Windows Live Messenger offers more than a simple list of contacts you can click on to chat with someone. It integrates with Facebook, LinkedIn, and MySpace, it delivers MSN news, and it connects with your Hotmail account. Messenger is more of an online communications hub than an IM client. But if the aggregated view is too noisy for you, you can switch to the compact view which is more like a traditional IM client. Plus, its mobile app lets you stay connected on the go from a Windows Phone 7, BlackBerry, Android, or iOS mobile device.
- Windows Live Mesh: It can be daunting to keep information synced among various PCs and devices you use, or to make sure you have access to your data even on the go. Windows Live Mesh helps tie everything together and automatically keeps your data synced and available. You can keep files and folders automatically synced among different Windows or Mac OS X PCs running Live Mesh, or with Microsoft's cloud-based SkyDrive data storage service.
- Windows Live Writer: Microsoft Writer makes it simpler to write blog posts for a variety of blog platforms including WordPress and SharePoint. Rather than having to learn different blogging conventions, you can just type the post the way you want, and easily add photos, videos, or Bing maps to enrich your post with interactive content.
- Photo Gallery: For many, the PC has replaced the bookshelf photo album as the primary repository for photos. Windows Live Photo Gallery gives you the tools to import photos and videos quickly from your camera or smartphone and keep them organised on your PC. Its advanced editing tools let you fuse pictures together or combine elements from different photos to make the best possible picture. It also includes built-in search options that let you find photos based on when they were taken, or where, or to use facial recognition technology to find all photos of a given person.
- Windows Live Movie Maker: With HD video being virtually a default feature of smartphones, laptops, and tablets these days, everyone is an amateur director or producer. Edit and polish that lengthy, boring footage of your daughter's fifth-grade play on Movie Maker before sending it to friends or family, publishing it online, or posting it on social networking sites like Facebook. Give it a title and intro, cut out parts you don't want, add some background music, and more. Editing and producing a movie is simple with Movie Maker.
- Windows Live Family Safety: Family Safety 2011 enhances the parental controls already built into Windows and makes it even easier for parents to protect children from the darker side of the web and to monitor or limit Internet activity. Parents can even limit email and IM communications to approved contacts, and can log in to view activity reports from their own PC rather than checking in on each separate PC.
Windows Live SkyDrive
Everything seems to revolve around the cloud these days. In other words, we find ourselves using products and services that exist on the Internet rather than locally on our PCs. But if you happen to be without Internet access or if the service goes down, that can be a problem.
Luckily, services such as Windows Live SkyDrive are great for backing up data to the Internet, or for storing files and folders that you want to access from just about anywhere. As mentioned earlier, you can use Windows Live Mesh to sync data automatically from a local folder to SkyDrive cloud storage, where you can make sure it is backed up and available.
The 25GB of storage provided by SkyDrive is sufficient for most SMBs to back up critical data. (Data synced using Windows Live Mesh is limited to a separate 5GB space.) Plus, a Silverlight tool lets you drag and drop files and folders from any browser that supports Silverlight, Microsoft's framework for delivering interactive web content.
Office Web Apps
Along with SkyDrive, Microsoft also provides free, web-based versions of the most popular Microsoft Office applications. Office Web Apps let you create, view, and edit Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote files directly from the web even if Microsoft Office isn't installed on your PC. Office Web Apps lack the complete inventory of bells and whistles found in the full Microsoft Office suite, but they are more than adequate for most users, and you can't beat the price. The best part is that the files created in Office Web Apps are in the same format as their desktop Office counterparts, so compatibility is not an issue, and the files can be shared with peers for collaborative editing online.
But organisations that want more robust tools, or the full Microsoft Office experience, should look for the upcoming launch of Office 365 - Microsoft's replacement for Business Professional Online Services. Starting at only $6 (3.60) per user per month, Office 365 will provide Exchange email, Lync instant messaging, SharePoint collaboration, and the Office Web Apps productivity suite.
Security software is unfortunately a requirement for Windows PCs. There is no shortage of attackers and malware developers targeting PC users with viruses, worms, phishing attacks, and other insidious things. Windows has a built-in firewall to keep unauthorised traffic and users out of your PC, and Windows Defender to identify and block spyware and drive-by downloads. But for more comprehensive anti-malware protection, get the free Microsoft Security Essentials software. Security Essentials is simple and does what it needs to do with a minimum of user intervention or annoyance.
If you're unfamiliar with these free tools from Microsoft, check them out. The price is right, so certainly you should explore whether they can meet your needs before you spend money buying third-party software that does the same thing. Whether to use, instead, other free tools and services such as those offered by Google: That is largely a matter of personal preference. But the Microsoft tools tend to work together and integrate well, so you may find that if you are using one Microsoft tool, it is better to leverage the convenience of using the others as well.
Whether you are new to these tools, or have been using them for some time, I'd be interested to know in the comments, or by email, what your experience has been like and whether or not you would recommend these tools to others.