Microsoft quietly began offering the latest beta of its Windows Live Essentials 2011 -- a key consumer part of the company's cloud computing initiative -- for download on Tuesday. Of note to business and professional users, the beta now includes tighter integration to Microsoft's Office suite.
The move comes at a time when Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) is preparing to begin beta testing of Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) on Sept. 15.
"Were always working to improve the performance and quality of our services and weve made significant progress in this area in todays beta update. This includes things like decreasing the time it takes to start each program or render each webpage, and improving the quality of your experiences," Chris Jones, vice president of Windows Live Engineering, said in a post to the Windows Live Blog on Tuesday.
While Live Essentials includes a number of cloud-based applications designed primarily for consumers -- think Photo Gallery and Movie Maker -- the bundle also includes several applications that can be leveraged by users in a work environment.
For instance, as social networking becomes a tool of growing importance in the workplace, being able to bring Facebook chat into Live Messenger has applicability in many business contexts.
"We're connecting Messenger's [approximately] 300 million customers (who are already connected to Yahoo Messenger and Office Communicator) to Facebooks [approximately] 500 million customers. To make sure this happens smoothly while Windows Live and Facebook both build up the needed back-end infrastructure, well start by releasing this chat capability in the U.S., U.K., France, Brazil, Germany, and Russia today," Jones added.
Additionally, the new beta hones in on making Live Essentials applications like Live Messenger start up more quickly than in past releases, while the Live Writer blogging tool adds tighter integration with Microsoft Word and the other Office apps. Among those features is the ability for Writer to retain Word formatting when a file is pasted into a blog post.
Improvements in how the system offloads video processing to a PC's graphics processing chip also means that video chat is 30 percent more efficient, Jones said. And the Live Mail app now properly handles spam sent to Gmail accounts, fixing a problem with how the system handled unwanted email.
Beta testing of Live Essentials 2011 began in late June and, besides the updates, the beta "refresh" -- as Microsoft calls it -- also fixes a passel of bugs.
"Weve been able to improve the quality of the software and have fixed over 75 percent of reported crashes," Jones added.
Microsoft officials are still being cagey about a ship date, however.
"We are excited to announce the Windows Live Essentials Beta Refresh today and will share timing for the final version in the coming months," a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an e-mail.