A beta version of Windows Live Messenger has been released today. It is the next version of Microsoft's MSN Messenger IM (instant messaging) service.

The software for the service is available for the public to download from its Windows Live Ideas website. It was available for beta testing before, but by invitation only.

The release aims to help Microsoft compete better with communications tools from Google, Skype and others. It offers a PC-to-phone calling service called Windows Live Call, and free video-with-voice communications, called Video Conversation.

From next week, Microsoft is extending Windows Live Call to include Austria, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Italy and the Netherlands. Windows Live Call, with service from Verizon, is already offered for a fee in the UK, US, Germany, France and Spain.

Philips and Uniden will offer cordless phones designed exclusively for Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft said. They are dual phones that work over both the internet and public-switched telephone networks.

The beta service includes a 'sharing folders' feature that lets users share photos and other files of any size with Messenger contacts by dragging and dropping the files into their Windows Live Messenger window.

It also lets users send messages when their contacts are offline, with the messages delivered the next time the recipient logs on.