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Pssst...have you heard? Microsoft has some great Web services.

Microsoft's Web services are so often overlooked that they're just about the software giant's best kept secret. But Microsoft is no Web-service slouch. In recent months the company has beefed up its Internet-based offerings with Office Web Apps, cool mapping tools, and desktop productivity software for making your data and core applications available anywhere on multiple devices, such as netbooks, smartphones, or PCs at an Internet café.

For this article I hunted down five of Microsoft's newer Web services that I think deliver better functionality than what Google and other competitors offer. I've also added a couple of tips related to the Hotmail overhaul that's expected to roll out soon.

Get Office Web Apps Right Now

(Editor's Note: This hidden gem is no longer so hidden. Microsoft has now officially launched its Office Web Apps for general availability. You can try out the Web-based versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote by going to office.live.com and signing in with your Windows Live ID. - updated 6/8/10)

Office Web Apps, currently in beta, are scheduled to go live June 15 when Microsoft Office 2010 hits store shelves. They're free, online versions of Microsoft's popular Office programs--namely, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote--that you can access from a Web browser. But you don't need to wait until then: You can start using Office Web Apps right now. All you need to get started is your Windows Live ID and a document to upload to Windows Live SkyDrive.

First, go to skydrive.live.com, and click Add files above your SkyDrive folders. Next, select a folder and upload the file you want to use from your desktop. Afterward, you'll see a page showing the contents of your SkyDrive folder. Above the files should be a small line of text that says, 'Join our preview program to create, edit, view, and share Office documents online!'

Click Join our preview program and then select Agree at the bottom of the end-user license agreement. You're now set up to use Office Web Apps.

To get started with Office Web Apps, go back to SkyDrive. Select the document you uploaded, and then click the new Edit menu option. This command will take you to the corresponding Web app for your document type. At the time of this writing, Microsoft's Excel and PowerPoint icons were functional, but the Word and OneNote apps had no document-editing capabilities; Microsoft says that Word and OneNote will not be available before the official launch of Office Web Apps.

You can also create Excel and PowerPoint documents in your browser by clicking the New drop-down menu at the top of the folder-contents view.

Streetside in Bing Maps

The latest version of Bing Maps has an interesting new feature called Streetside (similar to Google Maps Street View) that allows you to explore street-level views of select U.S. cities. Microsoft has a long way to go if it wants to match the thousands of miles that Google offers in its Street View mapping service--but from what I've seen, Microsoft provides a compelling alternative.

Bing Maps
To use Streetside, go to Bing Maps and click the Try it now! link in the left pane to activate the Silverlight version of Bing Maps. Then just search for an address, and select the Streetside link in the Bing Maps search results.

When you first start up Streetside, Bing Maps' Silverlight interface uses a cool 3D effect to drop you into the map. Bing also uses a 3D effect when you zoom in on a building or location within Streetside. Though this feature doesn't really add to the functionality of Bing Maps, it is a nice visual enhancement.

You can easily navigate Streetside either by using the compass at the bottom of the screen or by dropping the Streetside icon (the little blue man) onto the map. I found that, compared with Google Street View, Streetside makes zooming in on specific locations much easier; exploring and navigating Streetside's immersive images is effortless, too.

Bing Maps also keeps a search history in the left navigation panel under 'My Legend', so you can quickly move between previously searched locations on Bing Maps.

With this iteration of Bing Maps, you can add Foursquare, National Geographic, Twitter, and other applications that contribute more data to what you're seeing in Streetside. The Foursquare application brings up a list of recent check-ins and tips about restaurants and venues near the location you're viewing on Streetside. Bing's Twitter app adds location-based tweets to your Streetside map, and assorted other applications can help you find gas stations, rental properties, street art, and more. To add applications to your map, select Map Apps in the left pane in Bing Maps.

Social Media Aggregation and Hotmail

Do you have a relative or friend who uses Hotmail but is leery of joining a social network like Facebook? A great alternative is to bring all your social-media activities into your Windows Live profile page, including your Facebook wall posts, Twitter updates, and Flickr photo streams. Then, when you update any one of your social networking services, your Hotmail friends get an update.

To set it up, go to home.live.com and click Add web activities at the upper right of the page. This takes you to another page where you can select the sites and services you use, such as Facebook, Hulu, MySpace, TripIt, Twitter, WordPress, Yelp, and YouTube. Adding services will pull all of your status updates, ratings and reviews, wall posts, and shared photo albums from them to your Windows Live profile.

Now just add your friends to your Windows Live network by selecting Add people from the Windows Live homepage, and your contacts will be able to see your shared posts and photos through their Windows Live account.

Once the new Hotmail goes live, you'll also be able to pull your friends' social networking updates into the new Windows Live landing page, creating a central hub for all your online activity.

Next: Mapping SkyDrive Folder to the Desktop

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