Microsoft has introduced a test version of a hosted email and instant messaging service (IM) as part of the beta release of Windows Live.

As part of its set of free online services, Microsoft will host the email and IM for a domain an internet user already owns, according to a web site describing the new Windows Live Custom Domains service, Users can also sign up for the service on that web site, which allows them to configure Custom Domains through a web-based wizard.

By signing up for the Custom Domains beta, users receive up to 20 email accounts within their domain, each with 250MB of memory; junk email filter protection through Microsoft SmartScreen technology; and email virus scanning and cleaning.

The service also enables users to check their domain email from any PC via the web, and access MSN Messenger and MSN Spaces through their domain so they can link up with users of those services, according to Microsoft.

Microsoft introduced Windows Live on 1 November as part of its strategy to offer more advert-supported, web-based services in an effort to compete with Google. The service, which offers a range of services through a portal that users can customise, is in beta now. Though Microsoft said it will maintain its MSN portal, Windows Live is expected to replace MSN as the go-to portal for email, search and other internet-based services.

Microsoft plans to add more services to Windows Live later this year. A list of them can be found here. Windows Live services currently in development that are not in beta yet include Windows Live Messenger, a next-generation IM client with peer-to-peer file sharing enhancements; Windows OneCare Live, which offers virus scanning, firewall settings and software backups; and a version of Windows Live Search for mobile devices.