Sharon Machlis

Windows Live Writer: The good, the bad and the surprising

August 14, 2006 9:12 PM EDT
Even just a couple of years ago, would you have expected Microsoft to create a free word processing application DESIGNED to be a plug-in for open-source software? OK, so the new Windows Live Writer beta is just for blogging, not exactly a threat to Word. Still, even though some refinements are needed, it's a pretty neat application that could foreshadow what a Windows Live Word app might look like.

Unlike typical Microsoft bloatware, this installer was a sleek under-5 Meg. Alas, I'm not using Live Writer now to post this blog entry, since it didn't auto configure with the software we've got running here. But when I tried it on my personal blog running WordPress (Planning Livable Communities), it took just seconds to configure.

Why use a third-party plug-in to do my posting instead of WordPress -- very good blogging software that's served me well for almost two and a half years -- itself? After a little time exploring Live Writer, I see some advantages to using it as a blog writing tool:

1. WSYWIG. Live Writer downloaded style-sheet information from my blog, so as I'm creating a post, I can see what it will look like in real-time, instead of saving and scrolling down as I do in WordPress. Live Writer's what-you-see-is-what-you-get is especially handy when inserting pictures. For example, I've found it cumbersome in the current WordPress version to center photos and have them look like I want within a post, even when hand-coding the html (WordPress seemed to always helpfully  "clean up" -- i.e. change -- my code). It was easier and quicker to do in Live Writer. The software is also designed to add maps (from Windows Live Local, of course).

2. Adding links was faster -- the graphical link tool takes less time than either WordPress's WSYWIG or switching to WordPress's html source (although I'm sure one could go into WordPress and tweak it, that's the beauty of open source.).

3. Built-in spell check. There is in fact a spell-check plug-in for WordPress which I haven't gotten around to installing, but having the option with no effort is nice.

4. Easier switching back and forth between html source and WYSWIG views.

5. You can set it to autosave, which is handy for those of us who get caught up in writing lengthy blog posts and might not remember to save. You can also upload a draft to your Web Server.

Drawbacks:

1. Each new post opens a new window, which is kind of annoying.

2. The sidebar only tracks the posts you've done within it, so "recent posts" is pretty sparse even for a robust blog unless you're using Live Writer all the time from the same machine. You can get a list of past posts from your Web site with a couple of clicks, but by that point you might as well go to the blog itself. And I do like my WordPress dashboard, which gives a very good overview of posts, comments, links and more.

3. It was a little glitchy trying to delete a test post that I accidentally uploaded to my live site instead of as a draft. I did finally get rid of it, but not all WordPress editing/deleting views would work.

4. I've got no idea what information if any Microsoft is collecting and storing about my activities.

It is a pleasant surprise to see a small, efficient application from Microsoft that's designed from the outset to work well with popular open-source blogging applications. Sure, Microsoft can't resist touting its own Windows Live Spaces as a blog site, but once you choose "other," there's pretty decent integration, at least with WordPress. At one point the application even encourages users who can't make Live Writer work with their own blogging application to let the company know. That's not the Microsoft I remember.

I doubt I'll turn to Live Writer for all my personal blogging. But I plan on keeping the software installed on my home PC, and will be using it for some of my longer, more involved posts. If you blog and think the editing interface on your current blogging software could stand some improvement, Live Writer is worth a look.