Microsoft crafts MSN threat to AOL

Aimed squarely at America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp.’s second beta of its next-generation MSN wraps the MSN portal with a browser bow.

Scheduled to be available for download Thursday, the latest revamping of MSN builds off the initial beta released in May, which integrated MSN services into a branded Internet Explorer browser. Now called MSN Explorer, Preview 2 adds some capability to customize the browser, its sidebar, and the MSN services you use. With direct access to Web services such as Communities, eShop, Hotmail, MoneyCentral, and MSN Messenger, MSN Explorer – expected to ship this fall – also anticipates Microsoft’s .Net future of software-as-a-service that you can access from many device.

Designed for Web novices, MSN Explorer is Microsoft’s challenge to the AOL client and browser. Although only customers of MSN services will benefit from the integrated browser, you can use MSN Explorer with any Internet service provider (unlike AOL’s browser). And you don’t have to use the MSN Explorer to access MSN services. But it was clear in the initial beta that you get broader use of all the functions if you go with Microsoft tools all the way, including the browser, MSN membership, and Hotmail.

At the heart of MSN Explorer is a user interface that keeps services from multiple sites across the MSN network always on hand.

“Today, Web users face technology schizophrenia with multiple profiles, personalities, and interfaces,” said Yusef Mehdi, vice-president of Microsoft’s consumer group. “MSN Explorer builds off Microsoft’s .Net strategy to deliver a single user experience even though it pulls data from multiple sites.”

The MSN toolbar replaces icons on Internet Explorer with colorful ones for MSN services: Home (, Hotmail (e-mail), Favorites, Online Buddies (MSN Messenger), People & Chat (Communities), Money, Shopping, and Music. And like Netscape 6, MSN Explorer has a sidebar that travels with you. Called the My Stuff bar, the sidebar offers access to your stocks, calendar, pictures, and radio stations, all stored on MSN servers.

While MSN Explorer doesn’t offer much in the way of customization, Microsoft has added the capability to change, which channels appear in the My Stuff sidebar.

“You could add an icon for your file cabinet, sports page, and shopping wish list and even track your car’s value on a daily basis,” said Hillel Cooperman, a group product manager for MSN Explorer.

To make MSN even easier to use than AOL, Microsoft says it has streamlined installation and sign-up. With a single click, you sign up with the default setting.

“Because most people select the default settings, we’ve eliminated most steps in the MSN setup process,” Cooperman said. “There are still options if you don’t want those settings; they’re just off to the side.”

Microsoft is building MSN Explorer around Passport, the MSN user identity service that lets you log in once to all your MSN services, including an electronic wallet. When you log on to MSN, you automatically sign into your Hotmail, MoneyCentral, MSN Messenger, and other accounts.

The MSN client can support up to six different users. Still, a single login for all your personal information could put privacy and security at risk.

Microsoft plans to use Passport as one of the building blocks for its .Net platform “when Passport will provide access to not only Microsoft services, but our partners’,” Mehdi said.