With Microsoft’s ever-increasing trend toward Metro-style Windows 8 apps, many thought that Windows Live Essentials would be left by the wayside. Windows Live Essentials, of course, was (and now still is) Microsoft’s suite of must-have desktop applications including Windows Live Messenger, Mail, Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Writer, Family Safety, Mesh, the Messenger Companion, and the Bing Bar. The Redmond software giant originally decoupled these applications from Windows to allow for a faster development cycle. But between the company’s focus on Windows 8 apps like Mail, Messaging, Photos, Calendar, and People and the discontinuation of the Windows Live branding, it was widely assumed that Windows Live Essentials 2011 would be the latest version of the suite. Surprisingly, that’s not the case.

Microsoft has released Windows Essentials 2012, a version of the suite (sans “Live” branding) which swaps out Mesh for Microsoft SkyDrive (warning: do not install this update if you’d like to continue using Mesh) and adds a few new features to Windows Photo Gallery and Movie Maker. But while Windows Essentials 2012 still includes Messenger, Mail, Writer, Family Safety (which won’t be installed on Windows 8, since it already includes these features), and the Outlook Connector Pack, these programs have been barely touched. In fact, many still contain traces of the old “Live” branding.

Of the two applications to receive updates, only one is fairly major. Microsoft has added a number of new features to Movie Maker, including video stabilization, music (in partnership with AudioMicro, Free Music Archive, and the Vimeo Music Store), additional audio tracks, waveform visualizations, audio emphasis, and text effects. Projects will also now default to H.264. Photo Gallery, meanwhile, now includes a feature called auto collage. Both applications will also allow you to upload directly to Vimeo.

With this release, Microsoft’s strategy seems fairly obvious. If you’re a tablet user, you’ll want to spend your time in Metro-style Windows 8 apps like Mail and Photos. But if you prefer using the desktop, you can still take advantage of the Windows Essentials applications like Windows Live Mail and Windows Photo Gallery. Plus, keeping these applications up-to-date (even if only barely) has the added benefit of extending support for those on Windows Vista and Windows 7.

[Windows Experience Blog]