'Wave 3' of Windows Live Writer reveals some loose ends

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It's the latest test of the one component in Microsoft's online applications arsenal whose code could be leveraged for a more general purpose than blog publishing. Our tests show it lacks a few things Microsoft users would expect.

One of the revised components in Microsoft's latest "Wave 3" test for its Windows Live services is something we've mentioned before here in BetaNews: Windows Live Writer. Its name sounds deceptively like a general purpose word processor -- like the Write utility that comes with Windows -- and you might think that with a little tweaking, it could be.

In fact, one question we had openly considered when Windows Live Writer first emerged on the scene as a brand, was whether Microsoft had an interest in extending the functionality of this particular service to something more general than just publishing blogs on Windows Live Spaces -- for example, a kind of online word processor in the vein of Adobe's Buzzword.

As it turns out, our suspicions may this time have been inaccurate: The "Wave 3" edition of Microsoft's blog editor continues to lack the most basic function you'd expect from a word processor: search and replace. My first thought in testing Live Writer as a blog editor was to see how it would handle material that's appeared in a blog before -- namely, one of BetaNews' own. But that material had embedded HTML tags, which Live Writer would convert into typeset characters -- for example, <p> -- that would appear on the published blog.

The first way you would expect to get rid of such characters is by pasting the whole text first, and editing the tags out next. Of course, you can't do that without global search and replace. Thankfully, in this particular situation, there's an alternative, although it's not in an obvious place: From the Edit menu, select Paste Special then from the dialog box, set the option for HTML and click OK. Now, if you're a veteran of Microsoft Office (and many users of Live apps will be), you'd probably expect Paste Special to mean something else entirely. For the better part of two decades, it's been the way you paste linked or embedded text from a source. Say you're copying cells from a spreadsheet into a Word document; you'd use Paste Special so that the pasted cells are updated when the spreadsheet is updated. There's nothing particularly intuitive about the phrase "Paste Special" that means, in this particular context, "Hey, the buffer might contain HTML tags, so treat them as markups instead of literal characters, please."

Still, that doesn't excuse the absence of search and replace, especially in a program that is at least sophisticated enough to contain a spell checker. You can Find Text from the Edit menu, but that's the extent of Live Writer's location abilities.

The Source tab along the bottom does give you direct access to a blog post's source code. Now, Microsoft has actually learned a lot since the era of FrontPage, so it's good to see that while Live Writer lays out a blog post's contents cleanly, it's also using a minimum of HTML tags, and using the most basic ones. You can paste fancy markup into this area if that's your inclination, but if you were the type of blogger who really needed exclusive markup, you probably wouldn't be using Live Writer anyway.

The smoothest part of Live Writer we've used thus far is the picture handling. You shouldn't try drag-and-drop, though after you click the Insert Picture link from the right pane, the process is very familiar and straightforward. Pictures that are obviously too big for the space where you're inserting them, are automatically scaled down to a reasonable scale -- what appears to us to be about 50% of the column width of the full layout. That's something Microsoft Word doesn't do; it doesn't assume you probably want a huge image to be printed smaller than the width of the page, making you size it down instead.

The properties pane for inserted pictures is straightforward, and in our test, changes made there were reflected on-screen quite quickly. So there's obviously some thought given to reducing steps and making some processes more intuitive, in Live Writer.

Perhaps the one bar you'd expect Live Writer to clear handily, though, is the need to extend the "experience" above and beyond what the Windows Live Spaces user already has available. The default blog post entry page in Live Spaces doesn't look like much at first, but it actually contains a lot of functionality that's mirrored in Live Writer. You can insert stored text and images pretty much the same way, your formatting tools are fairly similar, and you can directly access the source code.

What exactly does Live Writer give you, then, that's over and above what Microsoft offers everyone online? Depending on the user's bandwidth, Live Writer is probably a little faster. But it's not exactly an "online application" any more, especially with its direct dependence on Windows-based libraries such as DirectX -- dependencies that, of course, take "Wave 3" out of the realm of possibilities for Mac OS and Linux users.

Live Writer is an interesting test of Microsoft trying to do something on a small scale, in a big way. We'll keep our eyes on it, but for now, it has a ways to go.

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