Windows Live Messenger 2010 Beta review

It has been a week since Windows Live Messenger 2010 Beta (wave 4, 15.3.2804.0607) released to the public as a preview of what is expected to be Windows Live Messenger 2011 once it comes out of beta. You can download the new Messenger as part of the Windows Live Essentials beta. I have been using it heavily, here are my thoughts.

Lack of display names

Ever since I started using Messenger you were able to set your name to whatever you like straight from the application. I won’t lie, in the past that led to annoying names popping up in people’s contact lists. To prevent long names from cluttering up the conversation window Microsoft added personal messages to MSN years ago. In the years after the introduction of personal messages more steps were slowly added to change your display name, encouraging people to set a simple display name and use the personal message for everything else.

With the introduction of wave 4 the Messenger team took simplifying names even further, maybe a step too far? Messenger 2010 beta doesn’t allow you to set your display name from the application at all. Instead your real name is used, which you filled in when you created your Hotmail or Live account. Only buried in the More options dialog you’ll find the Edit Name button which will take you to the place to change your Windows Live Profile name.

Annoying nicks vs. real names

Agreed, the contact list does look cleaner when everybody would use their real name. But it raises some questions.

  • Why is Messenger forcing me to use my real name? Just because I chat with people doesn’t mean I want them to know my real name. I chat with strangers from time to time, so do teenagers who are more vulnerable.
  • What about the people who filled in their real name under the impression those details would never be published?
  • What about people who filled in bogus (sometimes embarrassing) names which will now start showing up to their Messenger contacts?
  • Why can my contacts set a nickname for me (right click on the name in Messenger -> Edit contact -> Nickname), but I can’t set my own nickname?
  • Some of my contacts are still seeing my real name as I set it months ago. The updated real name won’t show up in their contact list while they didn’t set a custom nickname for me.
  • When I try to change my name and leave my Last Name blank it will tell me: Please enter your last name – don’t worry, you choose who gets to see it. Ironically there is no privacy control to hide my last name anywhere. This used to be the case in the past, but since the Windows Live privacy controls were “simplified” it is not possible anymore to make your last name private. Why? This is a big decrease in privacy and users aren’t clearly informed about this.

Please enter your last name - don't worry, you choose who gets to  see it.

What could be done?
Encouraging people to use their real name is okay, but don’t force them. Additionally to the first and last name, add a nickname field to profiles too which users can fill in so their nickname shows to their contacts. If people leave their nickname field empty the real name can still be shown in Messenger.
And most important, give the users their privacy controls back over their real name. A name is personal information; it can’t be intentional to publicly show personal information without a prior warning as a result of simplifying your privacy controls. This really isn’t a Messenger issue; it is caused by the Live web service, but too big of a privacy concern to ignore.

Appear offline is the new block?

The option to block contacts disappeared from the Messenger 2010 beta. At first sight it seems Appear Offline will be replacing the block function, because you can’t talk to people when you appear offline to them. You can now also appear offline to individuals or categories instead of just everyone at once. But the idea of appearing offline being the new block seems flawed on further inspection:

  • You can’t send messages to people to which you appear offline. But you still receive messages from those same people. If I still receive messages from people to which I appear offline, how do I truly block them from messaging me? Except from permanently deleting them from my contact list I don’t see any option.
  • Let’s assume receiving messages from people to which I appear offline is a bug. If Appear Offline is truly supposed to replace block, why is it still being called Appear Offline and not Block? Why would anyone still want to appear offline to everyone (block everyone)?
  • Appear offline is reverted after you sign out, which isn’t what you would expect when it is really supposed to replace blocking.
  • Even when you want to send a quick message to someone who is genuinely offline you still have to appear online to them first. This seems an unnecessary extra step.
  • When you appear offline to just a single person the status indicator on top of the contact list will already show you as appear offline, which makes it look like you are appearing offline to everyone (or at least the majority) on your list.

What could be done?
Appear offline and block each had their own purpose. The way it is implemented in the current beta is a little bit of both, which led to breaking both old features. It isn’t possible to truly block someone, and it isn’t possible to use Messenger normally when appearing offline either. Being able to appear offline to individuals or categories is nice when it behaves like appear offline always did. When it behaves the way it does now it doesn’t really add any new functionality and just confuses users. If appearing offline to individuals and categories isn’t possible like how appear offline worked in wave 3, then don’t add it at all and bring back the real block function.

Huge advertisements

Ever since the first wave 4 screenshots leaked people have been complaining about the huge advertisements they shown. When I installed the beta I was happy to see regular ads like we are used to from wave 3. But the next morning when I signed in again those decent sized ads were replaced by the huge ads we saw in early screenshots. It seems both formats are being tested simultaneously.Huge ads vs. regular ads

  • If you click on the X on the big conversation window ad it will return to a regular text link ad. But the next time you open a new conversation window it will be a big graphical ad again.
  • The square ad is only there in full view, not in compact view.
  • If you see a square ad in full view, when you make the window smaller (in height) it will at some point return to a regular size.

I could get used to the square ad in full view, as long as it will never appear in compact view. It would mostly be blank space in full view otherwise, although I would rather collapse the right panel completely. However, the big ad in conversation windows feels very out of place.

What could be done?
I hope the big ad on the conversation windows will never make it to the final build. I understand the need for revenue, but at what cost? The graphical ad wastes a lot of space, it just doesn’t fit from a GUI point of view. This is an annoyance which will prevent some users from using Live Messenger at all. Having the X there to close this kind of ad is not a solution, especially when you make people do it every time they open a conversation window.

Smaller issues and bugs

These are minor annoyances or errors which you would expect from a beta. They may already be fixed in the newer builds being tested internally by Microsoft.

Redirecting links should be optional

You won’t notice it with the naked eye as long as you don’t click suspicious links, but every link you click on in a Messenger conversation is sent back to Microsoft’s servers. Whether the link looks suspicious or not is irrelevant. When someone sends you a link in a Messenger conversation (let’s say http://example.com) it will look like a regular hyperlink as always. However, once you click on the link you won’t be taken to http://example.com directly, instead Messenger will open the following URL in your browser: http://rdir.us/?l=http%3a%2f%2fexample.com&h=[HashBasedOnLink?]&p=1&u=[HashBasedOnUser?]. This is done without you seeing anything about it on the screen, only when the link looks suspicious a warning is shown and I suspect when the site is really known to be malicious a different warning will be shown.Remember to protect your password.

If Microsoft thinks the link is clean you will be taken to the link you originally clicked on within 1 or 2 seconds and the only way to notice the redirection is using some kind of package sniffing. Rafael Rivera wrote an interesting article on this with more information: Live Messenger and the “link harvesting black box in the sky”.
As for privacy, you can make a valid point about Microsoft being able to track every link you click. But keep in mind all your conversations are already passed through Microsoft’s Messenger servers. Microsoft being able to track all links sent through their network is nothing new, but being able to track which of those links you actually click is. Since all links now pass through their service they are in full control of what you click. What is preventing Microsoft from injecting a frame with an advertisement? Having the redirection will also make every link you click from Messenger load (slightly) slower, or not at all should the service go down. A feature to battle malware and viruses from spreading through Messenger is much needed, but it should be possible to opt-out of it. After all, all modern browsers already have their own malware/phishing site protection build in.

Installer unstable

The installer crashed twice on my main machine and once on a virtual machine. On the VM it happened on the first screen where you can choose which apps to install, while I wasn’t doing anything with the installer the moment it crashed. The machine was pretty much idle. I can’t say much else about this. Wouldn’t know how to replicate it either other than install and see if it crashes. Crash logs were sent with the error reporting tool though, hope it helps.

Toolbars waste space by writing everything out

Messenger 2010 got rid of the top toolbar in conversation windows. The only toolbar is on the bottom under the input box, so there is less space to make everything fit. Some options are squeezed together in a single item (like emoticons and winks for example). Moving all the options from one to two bars is quite impressive, but unless you set your conversation windows very wide you will never see all available options. You can press the >> button to see the remaining options, but that’s not convenient. And sure, I don’t have to see More options, Show the menu bar and Always on top all the time. But it would be nice if the text on the toolbar could resize appropriately to make more items visible. Appear offline to this person is just very long for a single item. Voice Clip and Change Font could just only show the icon when there isn’t much space available.

Social mode (full view) needs a smaller text size

Messenger’s social mode is more appealing than I thought it would be. Still won’t be using it that much as it is just not my kind of thing, but it’s certainly not bad. The big annoyance though is the font size. For some reason unclear to me the text in social mode is larger and uses more white space than anything else in Messenger (or any other application for that matter). There is a reason why Windows has a default text size for various GUI elements. It would be a mess when every developer would just pick a size they happen to like. I am using a 30 inch screen and am still compelled to run social mode in full screen so I don’t have to scroll after every three messages. At the least an option which makes the status update texts twice as small (and resizes everything else accordingly) would be nice.
While we’re on the topic of social mode, being able to collapse the right side with the contacts, just like collapsing the display pictures in conversation windows, would be a great.

No good indication of more people in the tab bar

When you have a lot of open conversations there is no good indication of more conversations being hidden on the tab bar. See the screenshot below. At first you would think you’re seeing all the open conversations, unless you press the little down arrow on the right, or make the conversation window wider.Tab bar filled upTrue, it does say (5) to indicate how many conversations are open in total, but how many people will really read that number all the time? Arrows left and right of the toolbar just like IE does when you open a lot of tabs would be a better indication.

Phantom invites are still here

Did you ever receive a friend invite from someone (most likely a spam bot) which you denied, but the next time you signed in to Messenger there was still a yellow bar on your contact list telling you there is 1 invitation waiting for you, only to find out you have no invitations right now once you click it? Right, so have many others. And this bug is still there in Messenger 2010. It’s hard to tell if this is the fault of Messenger or the Web services. Either way, please Microsoft can we get this fixed?

Graphical glitches when resizing

Resizing both the contact list and conversation windows produces graphical glitches. This doesn’t happen always, but when it does it is pretty annoying.
Graphical glitches when resizing windows

Offline contacts show in online groups

I have Show offline contacts in a separate category enabled, yet sometimes a contact who is offline still appears in a category among online contacts. This doesn’t happen often, I only noticed it twice. In both cases the contact was online at some point, but when he/she signed out the status icon changed, but the contact didn’t move to the Offline category.

Offline Facebook and MySpace contacts not filtered

Even when you enable Show offline contacts in a separate category it will still show offline Facebook and MySpace contacts amongst the online ones. When you have a lot of Facebook (or Myspace, 2004 called) contacts you will end up scrolling a lot just to find those few online ones.

It’s not all bad though

After a huge load of text on what I don’t like it may seem like it, but I’m not pessimistic about the new Messenger. I really like the tabs, the way my Facebook messages show up automatically as personal message, improvements to the Windows 7 taskbar preview. Social mode looks like it is able to keep people using an IM client in the days where everything seems to be focused on social platforms. I like how Facebook comments are posted back to Facebook too.

Messenger changed in a big way on how it interacts with social platforms, which is necessary to stay relevant long term. All together this isn’t bad for a first public beta build. Keep in mind it is beta for a reason, not only because it will break the machine of popular add-on developers, but also because the Messenger team is open for feedback. But if you don’t make yourself heard, don’t expect things to change magically. Report bugs and provide feedback. This is the main reason for this huge post, everything is duplicated to those places in one way or the other, in Messenger team bite sized chunks. Posting feedback does work.

26 thoughts on “Windows Live Messenger 2010 Beta review

  1. Lack of display names is pretty annoying. For example, in my contact list there were people I only knew by nickname. I don't have the obligation to know who Bruné, Blassioli, Neumann or Gunasekara are, just give me back those old good and recogniseable nicknames.
    There are people who prefer appearing offline, and I remember back when Appear Offline was introduced, with the Messenger team telling there finally was a way to chat without everybody else knowing you were actually there.
    As for tabbed chating, nice there's an undock feature, but still haven't got the way it works, since the conversation appears in two windows then, with one one them being the tabbed and now inactive one. Maybe a bug?
    And Facebook integration. Thanks for making barely all contacts have two or three entries.

  2. I think Live Sync is a downgrade from Live Mesh:

    1. From 5 Gb to 2 Gb storage space, instead of increasing to 25 Gb like all sites has done lately.
    2. No feed of changes, neither local, like the mini pop-up that appeared when hovering Mesh systray icon, nor online like mesh.com has.
    3. No option to share files/folder with read-only permission, only you can switch between allow or not allow to change permissions.
    4. No easy access from Wave 4 home to devices (upper links that are displayed in all the wave 4 products, ex. hotmail, home, profile, calendar, etc.).
    5. No Windows' context menu support when right clicking a folder and file.
    6. No way to invite people to share a folder locally
    7. No Windows Live Messenger integration, you can't for example share a file/folder within a conversation.
    8. Error on signing in advice you to restart the pc instead of show you a window to correct the error, I solved this by trying to signing in with Windows Live Messenger and then correcting the “saved” password that every time I use CCleaner is changed…

    Come on guys, what's going on here? 2 years waiting for an upgrade from Mesh and you gave us this? I am a Windows Live fan boy but I can't live with this… Mesh is one of my most used features… and now I can't use it as I used to because of the small amount of storage!

    Thank you very much my friend… They need to rethink about having separated Skydrive and Devices storages cause it doesn't make sense to nobody on the whole internet… Live Services are supposed to be a bundle of services very well connected and integrated… In my case your decision in Wave 3 about Hotmail unlimited storage by progressively increasing it when need was great… the same should be made for all the services… 80% of Live users doesn't use the 25 Gb of Skydrive for nothing… but there are a few people like me that use that and more… So a compensation is really important… Mails, Files, Photos, Synced files, etc… all in Live should be storaged in the same place… and all the services should roll out at once for every person… I'm still waiting for Hotmail wave 4 and I know I will have to wait for more time…. I understand the point of migrating the servers… but c'mon guys super users like me understand that… 90% of the users don't!

  3. mine dont even show as my real name, just show as my email, i tried click on change and it takes me to my windows live profile and yet my real name is there but still wont show on this msn

  4. Great article and I agree on everything you have discussed however since I'm know an avid gamer I want the xbox tab from messenger 2006 back. why the heck isn't it a part of the connecting services thing if you have messenger on the xbox…it makes no sense to not be able to see your xbox friends on messenger. i'm hoping that with kinect releasing they will fix this since it is speculated that you will be able to do video chat from xbox to messenger. There isn't much information on this issue but would like to hear opinions or any information anyone has.

  5. this new MSN is garbage without the feature to change my display name. if they don't fix this on release I'm leaving the service for Facebook for good.

  6. Once I got it figured out it was ok-ish. However… being FORCED to use my name I have uninstalled it and gone back to the previous version. After all, everyone knows it's me when “Detective John Kimble” signs in. ;)

    • How the heck do you go back to the previous version i’v tried and i cant!! i desperately want to go back to the previous version this new one sucks

      • After you uninstall Live Essentials 2011 you can go back to 2009:
        * Go to the Windows Control Panel
        * Add/Remove Software
        * Uninstall ‘Windows Live Essentials 2011′
        * Restart your PC (just to be sure)
        * Download Live Messenger 2009 from http://explore.live.com/windows-live-Messenger-XP
        * Even though it says “Messenger for Windows XP”, you can install this version on Vista and 7 too.

  7. Gimmie me back the block option and nicknames plz… cuz somtiems i wanna appear offline but still talk to friends and there is siometimes an error to sign in it troubleshoots. As for te over all ratings it's aiight i'll give it like a 5 outa 10. It's ok i guess but alot more work could be done for it to be the most memmorable messenger… creat comething that could hit em otha messenger off tha net, see what they got over urs and add it

  8. I hate that you can’t change your font and in order to edit your display name you have to go alllll the way to your profile to do it.

  9. is it mandatory to download this?cause sometimes if you dont have the newest version it doesnt let you to sign in and i dont like the messenger beta,well i dont like it cause of the display’s name stuff

  10. I don’t think they will make this mandatory for at least quite some time. This new version doesn’t support Windows XP, so they will need to make it possible for Windows XP users to continue using Live Messenger 2009. I think even if you use Vista or 7 you will be able to take advantage of that.

  11. I found the new video call setup quite good, however its rather annoying that you can’t move your own video window to wherever you like. This is a popular feature with AIM’s video call, and makes it handy that you can resize the window and move your own video around.

    I think this is something WLM should intergrate, as it provides more freedom of space for people with cluttered screens.

  12. I really take issue with being forced to use my real name. Microsoft have made a huge mistake with that. I think it’s actually quite disgraceful to slip that ‘feature’ in there and then blatantly lie about being able to choose who gets to see your real name (as described in the article). What they’ve done is the same as Blizzard’s ‘RealID’ system in Battle.net and almost with WoW forums; that idea provoked a massive backlash, forcing Blizzard to retract the idea for WoW forums. It is present as a feature in Battle.net but it seems we can change to a display name if we choose.

    People should not be forced to display their real name on the internet, in most situations. A lot of good reasons why are in the article.

  13. I hate that I cant have a nickname, and that I cant appear offline and still being able to chat with my contacts. And I want all the people from Microsoft or Messenger or Windows live essentials or whatever people is responsible for making this changes that they have a made an ENORMOUS mistake with these 2 features!! For the love of Jupiter!!! Jesus!!! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING ABOUT?!?!?!?! I find all the other stuff kind of cool I like the design but seriously C’MOOON!!! dont do this to the world, dont take away the opportunity to write whatever nickname we want to. Im going to bed now, but before that I’ll pray to every god known by man that they change these 2 features.

  14. I want the appear offline to some in my list back. I am used to yahoo messenger and that has been the best one out there for so many years. I didnt use msn/live messenger as I couldn’t use my digital camera as webcam either unlike yahoo. So many options that yahoo has, live messenger simply doesn’t have. I don’t want to be seen online to many same time, but still want to get their offline messages and chat to them appear as invisible to them. I don’t want to block them. Just add a feature called ‘ignore’ if some one really must be deleted and blocked from the list. For all those temporary actions, there must be some choice. I also want right click functions for everything. Thanks.

    • When you say opt out of Windows Live Messenger, you mean you don’t want to use Live Messenger at all? I would just uninstall the Messenger software (start –> control panel –> software) and stop using it. I don’t think you can opt out of Messenger without removing your Live account completely. But if you don’t use you Live account for anything else you could delete it through https://account.live.com/

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