For years I've been a fan of Gmail and its simple integration with Google Docs, Calendar, Picasa and a wide range of other cloud-based services. That said, I've never really used my Gmail account to its fullest, preferring to use the Hotmail email account that I've had for, oh, 18 years now.. In fact, my Gmail email address is completely ridiculous because I couldn't get anything that even remotely resembled my name when I registered, even though I was an early adopter and received an invite within two months of the beta.
But with Facebook to keep in touch with friends I use Hotmail less and less, and I've never really had a need to use my Gmail account. I use those accounts to sign on to services and to correspond with a few friends that haven't gotten into the whole social networking thing and that's it.
I use Google Docs far more than Gmail, and Hotmail only occasionally.
I've found that Windows Live Messenger is a useful tool for video conferencing with family - nothing special or better than what Google offers, but older users like my wife's parents and grandparents are more likely to have Hotmail accounts they can also use to access Microsoft Live services.
That all changed last week with the biggest upgrade to Hotmail in a decade, the official addition of Office and SkyDrive to Windows Live.
Through my Hotmail account I can now access 25 GB of free storage through SkyDrive, which includes the ability to maintain an online photo album. As well, Microsoft Live now offers a free online version of Office that includes scaled down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
Everything Microsoft is offering is comparable to Google more or less -a little better in some ways, a little worse in others. If you're already a heavy Google user I doubt you'll find many reasons to switch - although I do like OneNote and being able to work in Office formats is a compelling reason to change teams.
If you're not already married to Google, however, the updated Microsoft Live service could be for you - especially if you're considering a Windows phone in the future and already use Microsoft products at work and at home.
Here's a quick rundown of the Windows Live features I think are good and what could be better:
Navigation - Some features like the calendar are available from within your Hotmail account, while to access other features like Office you need to click on the Microsoft Live logo on the top of your screen. It feels like going backwards.
Part of the problem is the way I still use Hotmail to access Live, navigating directly to Hotmail.com to sign in and then backing out into Windows Live to access all the other services. I could probably save myself a lot of grief by logging in at Live.com, but I still think Microsoft could put everything in one place.
Features - Google is still more customizable, using colour coding and a long list of preferences to personalize your experience. However the new Live is incredible for managing contacts and your email inbox. For example, there are options that will let you delete all emails from one contact, another that lets you simultaneously add a contact to Hotmail and Messenger.
The Windows Live online photo album is also pretty awesome and makes it easy to store and share pictures online. Picasa is also good, but with 25 GB of free storage on SkyDrive I'd have to give Microsoft the edge.
Google Docs is also quite good and beats Office for collaboration, but Office is familiar and when it comes to look and feel of a printed page I'd give the edge to Microsoft. Plus, compatibility is always a huge issue for me, and 99 per cent of the business world still uses Microsoft Office.
Both Google and Microsoft offer built-in search tools, and while I'd give the edge to Google it's a fact that Microsoft's Bing search engine is actually quite good and winning lots of converts. While Microsoft doesn't have anything like Google Earth, Bing's mapping service is almost on par with Google Maps in my opinion - and for Whistler the maps seem to be more current, and based on summer satellite scans rather than winter.
Email is slightly better on Gmail, but Hotmail is also improved and makes it easier to share photo albums, embed video, etc. I also think that OneNote is going to have a lot of fans in the future because of the way it merges so many features to allow for a whole new level of collaberation. As touch screen coffee tables and tablets become the norm, One Note is going to be a new standard for productivity.
The Future - It's important to keep in mind that this represents a new beginning of sorts for Microsoft, and it's a good bet that this new suite of services will only improve over time. Far from giving up the fight the company appears willing to battle Google for every inch of ground, which I find encouraging.