Remember when an instant messaging client was simply a way to chat with your IM contacts? If Microsoft's Windows Live Messenger 2011 (free) is any indication, those days are long gone. This app not only lets you chat with your Windows Live contacts, it also offers an almost-comprehensive portal into your social networks.
Windows Live Messenger 2011 requires a Windows Live ID, but you can sign up for one with any e-mail address. Microsoft no longer requires that you sign up for a Hotmail address or that you select a specific Windows Live nickname, which is nice. Windows Live Messenger is also part of the free Windows Live Essentials suite.
Once you add your Windows Live contacts (or invite your friends and colleagues to sign up for the service), you're ready to chat--if chatting is all you want to do. If you want to take advantage of the social networking features, you can opt to connect Windows Live Messenger to your Facebook, LinkedIn, and/or MySpace accounts. If you're one of the millions of Twitter users, though, be warned that the micro-blogging site is not a connection option. It's an odd omission, especially if Microsoft wants Live Messenger to be considered a comprehensive portal to the most popular social networks.
Once your accounts are connected and your Windows Live contacts are added, your contacts appear in a list that runs down the right side of the app window. You can view all of your contacts, or you can sort them by source and availability. To initiate a chat, you simply double click the name of an online contact, and you're good to go. The IM windows are neat and clean (other than a text ad that runs at the very bottom of the window). I also like the option to save conversations when you sign off, as well as the fact that you can embed YouTube videos right into the IM windows simply by sending a link.
I'm less enamored with the rest of the Windows Live Messenger interface, which features the ribbon-style design that Microsoft has integrated into its recent products. The app's main window displays either your social feed or MSN news; you can switch between the two. When viewing your social feeds, you can see status updates and photos from your social network contacts, and can post your own. I didn't find the interface overwhelming, exactly, but it was a bit crowded; you're presented with status updates from one person right next to photos from another on top of news items from a third contact. A little bit of streamlining would go a long way, especially when you consider that you're also dealing with the ads that Microsoft features to pay the bills--often of the animated variety. Luckily, you can opt for a compact view of the app, which shows you only your contact list.
If you use Windows Live Messenger as your primary vehicle for IM--and you're a Facebook, MySpace, or LinkedIn junkie--this app will appeal to you. But if you won't consider a social network portal worth your time without access to Twitter, this app is not for you. And IM purists--especially those who want to chat with users of another IM service--will be better served with an app like Trillian, which lets you chat with users of multiple services, including AIM, Facebook, ICQ, Google Talk, Windows Live Messenger, and Yahoo Messenger, among others.