Microsoft updates MSN Explorer

In its ongoing effort to topple America Online Inc. as the reigning consumer Internet service provider champ, Microsoft Corp. is releasing an upgrade to its free MSN Explorer client next week.

Like the AOL client, MSN Explorer is browser-centered software that directly ties you to MSN portal servers. MSN Explorer wraps Microsoft’s Internet Explorer Web browser with MSN e-mail services, instant messaging, and shopping. The software also includes direct access to Microsoft’s financial services Web site, MoneyCentral, and its audio and video services through Windows Media Player. Microsoft released MSN Explorer, its first combo portal-browser, last October following a series of beta tests.

Added features in the incremental release expected on Tuesday include a collapsible My Stuff toolbar and an automatic spelling-check function for Hotmail and MSN e-mail users. MSN Internet service customers will find additional enhancements, including improved set-up and installation, the ability to read and write e-mail offline, and the ability to save dialers for multiple locations.

Although MSN Explorer is designed to work with MSN Internet access, which Microsoft claims now has 5 million users, it doesn’t have to. Anyone can download and use MSN Explorer, a key difference between it and the AOL client, Microsoft says.

User Requests Answered

Microsoft isn’t calling the MSN Explorer update a new version.

“The modifications are based on consumer feedback and don’t change the direction of the product, just update it,” says Brian Gluth, an MSN product manager.

One of the key features of MSN Explorer, the My Stuff toolbar, is a left-side navigation bar that gives you direct access to personal stock listings, radio stations, and other features that you manage using an MSN service. In the original release, this navigation bar was a permanent fixture in the browser.

“Users liked the My Stuff bar but wanted it to collapse for more real estate while browsing,” Gluth says. “The update lets you collapse or expand it.”

The new spelling checker can make your e-mails more accurate, but you need other Microsoft products in order to use it. “To use the spell checker, you need to have Internet Explorer 5.5 and either Office 95 or Works 3 and higher,” Gluth says.

More Perks Paired With MSN

While the My Stuff changes and spelling checker are available for anyone using MSN Explorer, more-significant improvements such as offline e-mail access come to users of MSN Internet access.

“Now you can read and respond to MSN and Hotmail e-mail messages without tying up the phone line,” Gluth says. “When you log back on, your messages are sent and all other actions completed.”

In order to read your e-mail offline, you need to jump through a few hoops; MSN Explorer must initially be configured for offline access while you’re online. But what’s more, you can now archive Web e-mail.

“The MSN Explorer update includes 10MB of storage so you can archive e-mail into folders to save the messages,” Gluth says.

Another MSN improvement catches up to a recent AOL feature. Initially, neither service made it easy to save multiple dial-up numbers for use from different locations. In this update, MSN Explorer adds better multi-location support, Gluth says.

Other recent updates to MSN portal services include MSN Music, a streaming music channel. Available in beta since April 3, MSN Music combines a library of content with recommendation technology from Mongo Music, acquired by Microsoft last year.

The AOL Challenge

Microsoft is continually beefing up its Web and portal business in response to growing pressure from rival AOL Time Warner Inc., which claims more than 28 million customers of its Internet service and portal software worldwide. AOL’s latest version, AOL 6, adds a media player, an improved e-mail client, and a shopping assistant bar. With the release of version 6, AOL touted its AOL Anywhere strategy, which offers members access to their AOL accounts from non-PC devices such as mobile phones and handhelds.

Reflecting Microsoft’s corporate .Net initiative, a Web-based operating system under development, MSN Explorer takes advantage of Passport. That function lets you register a single user name and password that works at numerous MSN Web sites, eliminating the need to re-register at every site. Microsoft recently amended its Passport user policy following criticism of its terms.

MSN Explorer also gives a hint to the approach of HailStorm, another part of Microsoft’s .Net strategy. HailStorm server software, still in development, will tie users to a selection of hosted Web services.