Microsoft today launched an upgraded version of its MSN Spaces website that lets users quickly create a website or blog, post photos and build a network of contacts.

Microsoft is renaming the portal Windows Live Spaces, part of a group of software applications the company has been developing carrying the Live name. Some of the Live services are upgrades of existing Microsoft ones, such as email and IM (instant messaging).

The services offered for free will be supported by advertising, which Microsoft said is "critical to driving growth for the company".

Microsoft is competing with Yahoo, Google and others for a share of an online advertising market founded on web-based software applications, including social networking sites.

Live Spaces incorporates many features already used in other social networking sites such as, an online community owned by News Corporation with more than 70 million users.

For example, users who are already using Microsoft's IM application can start a chat from within Live Spaces. Live Spaces also allows users to add others to their network of friends based on introductions from 'trusted' contacts.

Microsoft has also implemented controls addressing rising worries concerning minors using social networking sites. Users can control who may contact them through Live Spaces and also who can view their profile and site content.

By default, the profile of users under 18 years old can only be viewed by people who are in that particular person's IM contacts, Microsoft said.

Microsoft is offering mini-applications called gadgets for users to personalise their pages. The Live Spaces service can be found here.

Microsoft also said it will release 10 of 20 beta versions of its Live services by the end of September.

The company said it will release in the coming weeks a new version of the Windows Live Safety Center, a free web-based antivirus and performance management application. Microsoft is changing that product's name to Windows Live OneCare Safety Scanner.

Microsoft is also putting finishing touches on its Live Toolbar, an internet browser search bar launched in 38 markets this week. The company said it has incorporated access to other security offerings within the toolbar.

The company also teased another service, a beta called Live QnA. Microsoft describes the service as an online forum where people can ask and answers questions on topics. A sign-up is available here.