Microsoft updates MSN to release 7

Microsoft Corp. is unveiling an update to its MSN Web portal, revamping the look, adding content and ‘Net-based tools, and expanding broadband access options.

New features will be phased into MSN between now and October 25 – the launch date of Windows XP.

The new features in MSN 7, as Microsoft calls it, will also include .Net Alerts, which route messages via PC, cell phone, or handheld device. MSN is adding a personalization channel called My MSN, and is downsizing its home page design to load faster.

MSN’s new features are a clear attempt to tie the Web portal to Microsoft’s software-as-a-service and .Net My Services strategies. It is also an effort by the software giant to be ready for battle with America Online Inc., which will release AOL 7.0 on Tuesday.

MSN is angling to grow its subscriber list beyond the current 6.9 million, as well as boost the number of Web surfers who use its online technologies offered across product lines. Those include MSN Messenger instant messaging and Passport, which provides a single ID for e-commerce. Of the 270 million unique visitors who went to the MSN Web portal in September, 190 million have Passport accounts, according to Microsoft.

“We see AOL as our primary competitor now,” says Brian Gluth, senior product manager for the Personal Services and Devices Group at MSN.

AOL’s parent, AOL Time Warner Inc., is strong in content, including television, magazines, and films. Microsoft’s strength, on the other hand, is its technology know-how and its ownership of many consumer PC desktops, most of which run some version of Windows, says Rob Enderle, research fellow at Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group Inc.

AOL is the largest Internet service provider with 31 million subscribers, followed by MSN. EarthLink Inc. is in third place, trailing with 4.9 million subscribers.

Microsoft is improving MSN’s high-speed offerings, announcing nationwide availability of broadband Internet access in 45 U.S. cities, Gluth says. Prices will start at US$40 monthly.

MSN also resells the broadband Internet access services of several partner companies, including DSL provider Qwest Communications International Inc. and satellite concern StarBand Communications Inc. This week, MSN is adding substantially to its reseller relationships. New partners include DSL providers Verizon Communications Inc., SBC Communications Inc., and BellSouth Corp.

Along with expanding the markets in which Microsoft resells high-speed access, MSN offers its subscribers a new MSN Broadband Showcase content page. Those members will get exclusive content from partners such as cable television news channel MSNBC.

Microsoft is also broadening its .Net Alerts service, which is essentially an automated messaging system that tracks dynamic information including news, stocks, and traffic reports. You can program alerts for delivery as an e-mail message or an instant message delivered to MSN’s client Windows Messenger. You can also program .Net Alerts to go to myriad ‘Net-connected devices.

.Net Alerts are tied to Microsoft’s overall .Net strategy, which aims to make company’s existing software available over the Web to traditional PCs, cell phones, and personal digital assistants. Similar alert services are offered by rivals Yahoo and Infogate.

Starting this week, MSN 7 will support .Net Alerts for Money Central, Carpoint, and its Calendar and Music destinations. By setting up a Carpoint alert, for example, you can request delivery of real-time traffic reports to your PC, cell phone, or PDA at predetermined times.

Later, Microsoft will expand the MSN .Net Alerts to include more than a dozen partner companies. Among them is anti-virus vendor McAfee, which will automatically alert its customers of a new computer virus. Another is online auctioneer eBay Inc. Customers with .Net Alerts can be apprised of their bid status.

Microsoft has made major strides in its competition with AOL over the past year, Enderle says. It has accomplished its advances by expanding broadband access offerings, adding high-speed content to the MSN portal, and making MSN service easier to navigate and use.

Microsoft claims it’s making headway against AOL. Microsoft reports almost 80 per cent of MSN’s new MSN Internet Access customers switched from other ISPs, and says nearly half of these new customers are AOL defectors.

However, during the same time period, AOL has added more than 7 million subscribers -more than MSN’s total customers, Enderle notes.

In September, AOL began rolling out a high-speed service over Time Warner Cable’s systems. Its updated AOL 7.0 is expected to offer some enhancements for broadband connections. Also expected are enhancements to core features such as AOL Mail, Buddy Lists, and instant messaging.

The battle extends to the wallet, too. Microsoft is extending a summer promotion to lure customers to switch service providers. New customers can get three months of free MSN Internet Access, and access after that at a rate of US$21.95 monthly, guaranteed until Jan. 1, 2003. AOL charges US$23.90 monthly for its standard plan.