Microsoft on Wednesday previewed the next version of Windows Live Messenger, its consumer-oriented instant messaging (IM) application. Messenger will ship as part of the next Windows Live Essentials software suite, a free collection of applications and services for Windows Vista and 7, which is being developed as the "wave 4" version of Windows Live.

"IM has evolved," Microsoft group program manager Piero Sierra wrote in a blog post describing the upcoming release of Messenger. "It has gone beyond text to video chat. People want to share photos, videos, and links, too. People still love IM, they just want it to do even more."

To that end the next Messenger will include a number of new features, including:

Social network integration. Messenger will tightly integrate with Microsoft and third party social network services, as well as email, SMS, and photo sharing. It will offer live chatting with Facebook friends, integrate with LinkedIn, MySpace, and a wide range of other sharing sites, and provide an expansive new Social view that looks and works like the Zune and Windows Phone solutions.

Anywhere access. Messenger will be available on the web, in Hotmail, and on popular mobile phones. This includes, interestingly, a native version of Messenger for Apple's popular iPhone.

Take advantage of the power of the PC. On the PC, Messenger will utilize hardware graphics rendering for photo sharing and slideshow, and will declutter the PC desktop with tabbed conversation support. It provides HD video chatting as well.

The Messenger isn't currently available but a public beta is expected sometime in the weeks ahead, according to Microsoft. For a more complete list of what to expect in this release, please read What's New in the Next Windows Live Messenger on the SuperSite Blog.