Hot on the heels of Yahoo's recent mobile home page redesign comes a major upgrade to Microsoft's mobile deck. There is a new mobile.live.com URL (the old mobile.msn.com address also points to the new content). If you want to preview the site in your PC browser use mobile.live.com/wml/ as the above URL's will take you to a page about Live Mobile. The new front page has a brighter, less cluttered look with updated icons. This is not just a cosmetic update. There's a revised News section, changes to Live Mail, Spaces and Live Search, a new Driving Directions page and two alternate start pages labeled Live.com Beta and MSN.com Beta. Here's a rundown of the changes.
- News, which is now labeled MSNBC News contains the full content of some of the articles on MSNBC.com - a vast improvement over the two line summaries that used to pass for news at MSN Mobile. The news page is limited to only the four top stories, unfortunately (2nd image). I discovered that there is an alternate version of Live Mobile at mobile.live.com/pocketpc/menu.aspx which is more or less identical to the standard version except that under MSNBC News there is a sub-menu listing multiple news sections - International, Local, Business, Weather and Entertainment (3rd Image). Under these sections are dozens of additional articles. I played around with Firefox's User Agent Switcher extension and it looks like devices running Windows Mobile or Palm OS get redirected to the PocketPC version. The funny thing is that although the PocketPC site has more news stories than the regular site the actual pages are still small enough to load without error even on low end phones. Incidentally, if you like MSNBC's online news, visit MSNBC.com with your mobile - there doesn't seem to be a dedicated mobile URL but the browser detection works pretty well. The mobile version of MSNBC is one of the most attractive and well designed of all the mobile news sites and carries virtually the entire content of the MSNBC PC site.
- Live Mail is out of beta and seems to have completely replaced Hotmail on the mobile platform. It now supports bulk move and delete operations. There are check-boxes in front of each message in the Inbox and other folders. Check a bunch of messages and with a single click you can Delete or Move all the checked items. This is a feature that Mail2Web Mobile has had for a long time and which I find really speeds up managing my mail. Speaking of speed, Live Mail could use a speed boost. Unlike Y! Mail which has speeded up a bit since I wrote Mobile Mail Speed Test, deleting a message and loading the next one in Live Mail still takes an average of 21 seconds - six seconds slower than Y!Mail and Gmail. But at least, the login bug on Nextel handsets that I mentioned in my review of the live mail beta has been fixed.
- Spaces' mobile version has several new features since the last time I looked at it. You can now create a Space, post to your Space and tweak some of your Space's settings from the mobile page. Recent updates to any of your Contact's Spaces are now listed separately on the Spaces home page if you are logged in.
- Search is one of the most changed areas of Live. There are new News and Map searches in addition to the existing Spaces, Web and Local search types. You can even choose to search in all five search types at once. News and Web search results are processed through a transcoder which converts full web pages into a more mobile friendly layout. News search is similar to Google News and returned very relevant and current news articles for the queries I tried. Map search is kind of a misnomer. What it actually does is show you a map for any (US only) address you enter.
- The original mobile transcoder (review) was very innovative and powerful but not particularly intuitive in operation. The latest tweak retains the power but eliminates the learning curve. When you open a transcoded page, you initially see a section of the page - either the top portion, or if the original page has a navigational menu at the top that menu will be hidden and the view will start with the page's main content. There is header at the top that will say Section (2/14) for example, indicating where you are in the page. There are accesskey enabled Next and Previous links so you can navigate through the page. There is also a List All Sections link which shows a kind of textural thumbnail view of the full content of the original page, with each section represented by a single line of text (4th image). I found this view to help in locating specific content on large, busy pages. There is also a  View PC version link that takes you to the original untranscoded version of the site - a great bailout for those times when the transcoder tries to mobilize an already mobile site.
- Live.com Beta (mobile.live.com/portal) is a mobile version of Live's PC home page - which on the PC is a customizable personal home page quite similar to Google's in concept. Initially Live contains just a search box but you can add RSS feeds, links and widgets like Weather, News Headlines or Stock Quotes. Mobile Live.com displays your Live feeds and some of your widgets. The Feed Reader is no substitute for a dedicated reader like Bloglines mainly because it doesn't keep track of read and unread items. But it is handy for adding a particular feed to your mobile home page. When you click a feed you see the item's titles and the first few lines of each item body. Clicking a title takes you to a transcoded version of the original item.
- MSN.com beta (mobile.msn.com/portal) is another alternate start or portal page within Live mobile. If is a non-customizable view of the top stories from the MSNBC Headlines, US News, World News and Business sections plus FoxSports, MSN Money, and MSN Entertainment. Unlike the MSNBC news stories linked off of mobile.live.com many of these articles include photos.
- Sports: Live/MSN doesn't seem to edit it's own sports section anymore. Instead there is now a link to Fox Sports Mobile which doesn't particularly impress me. Stories are timely and in-depth but coverage is limited to only the most popular US sports: NFL, MLB, PGA, NASCAR and college football and hoops.
- Driving Directions I did a comparison of directions sites four months ago and commented that Microsoft didn't have a true driving directions page. If you did a local search you could get directions to any of the search hits but there was no way to get directions to an arbitrary address. That's fixed now. Driving directions are under Local on the Live Home page and are quite nicely done with very colorful and detailed maps (bottom image).
I'm impressed with Microsoft's recent mobile web efforts. Redmond is obviously trying very hard to be a major player in mobile . Live Mobile has some parts that are very nice indeed. I particularly like the Live.com personal homepage, the search improvements and the driving directions. Usability is generally very good in part because, unlike Yahoo which seems to be removing accesskeys from their mobile sites, the Live pages have accesskeys everywhere.
Microsoft is competing with Yahoo and Google for placement on carrier decks and as a general purpose mobile portal. Compared with that competition, the latest Microsoft offering is very competitive. Microsoft is now the quality leader in several areas.
I prefer Live's driving directions over Yahoo's - I seem to get better routings with Live and the maps are nicer. Google's mobile web based directions are text-only (no maps) although they do have the excellent downloadable Java ME Google Maps which includes driving directions.
I'd rate Live's local search and transcoded web search over Yahoo's and equal to Google's. Update: Yahoo has recently added mobile web search results to their portal - more on that in an upcoming article, which to me is far more useful than searching and viewing transcoded PC sites.
Live's News search compares favorably with the search in Google News and is something Yahoo doesn't have.
In the area of customization I put Live second behind Google mainly on the relative strengths of their RSS readers. Google's and Live's both let you view full items through a transcoder (Yahoo only shows titles and summaries) but only Google keeps track of and hides read items. In addition only Google lets you fully customize the content and layout of the mobile homepage independently from the PC homepage.
There are also areas were Live lags the competition. Live's News and Sports sections are far weaker than Yahoo's offerings or even Google News' default view.
Yahoo had an overwhelming lead in mobile web based PIM applications with a free Calendar and To Do List - which Microsoft used to charge for and which didn't exist on Google. That's changing fast. Google has it's own Calendar now and MS Live has made the Calendar part of their basic free edition. Still, only Yahoo's calendar, address book, and To Do's synchronize with Outlook and several other desktop PIM's.
Google's calendar doesn't have a mobile web version - only an SMS interface to alert you of events.
Finally, in mobile e-mail the three are pretty close. I find both Gmail and Live Mail easier and faster to navigate than Y!Mail but I have to downgrade Live Mail because of it's relative slowness.
This table summarizes my subjective rankings of the common features of the big 3 mobile portals on a scale of 1 to 5.
|Portal||News||Directions||Search||Personal Home Page||PIM Features|
Windows Live Mobile Portal: xhtml-mp/wml
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