The next version of Microsoft's Office productivity suite for Mac has been much anticipated, and last Wednesday Microsoft edged one step closer to it's release with the availability of Messenger 8 beta for Mac users. This is a test version of the release that will be included with the Office 2011 suite, which brings audio and video chat support to the program.
While iChat, Skype, and other clients support video and audio chatting, the Messenger 8 beta allows for this connectivity with the Windows Live network so if you have contacts that use this service (people with @live.com, @hotmail.com, and @msn.com email addresses), you might find the beta useful. However, being a beta release, Microsoft warns that corporate network users with Office Communications Server accounts should continue to use the previous Messenger 7 version for now.
The beta release has taken a while to develop, with the last official version of Messenger being released over a year ago in February of last year. According to the official Mac Office blog, this was in part because of a variety of protocol changes in the Windows Live desktop client, but also because of the sheer difficulty in programming and implementing these audio and video chat features.
The next version of Office is claimed to have more connectivity and collaboration options, and will offer a new interface (called the "Office for Mac ribbon") that has been described as being a hybrid effort between the current Mac and PC versions. We are looking forward to trying it out, and see what the suite offers in competition with other options such as Apple's iWork, and the free NeoOffice and OpenOffice suites.
This beta does have some limitations and known issues:
Contact icons will not display
Icons and avatars representing contacts will not display in the conversation window, so you should expect to see a blank square with a question mark symbol next to your contacts' messages. Additionally, the customization of contact icons has not yet been implemented.
File sending is not supported
While the final release will allow you to transfer files between contacts by dragging files to the conversation window or using the "Send File" option, these functions are not yet working.
Audio/Video calls may require special network configurations
If you cannot place audio or video calls with the beta, try ensuring that TCP ports 80, 443, and 1863 are open, and that TCP/UDP ports 30000 through 65535 are open. See this Microsoft KB article for more information on ports used by Messenger: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/927847
Custom emoticons may not display
If you use custom emoticons (I much prefer the word "smiley"), you may see an empty box displayed instead of the icon.