Exclusive: MSN gets a new start

The Microsoft Network (MSN) will be relaunched next week with a new moniker, a slimmer, faster Web site and a more realistic outlook the company hopes will secure its position as a serious online service.

Sticking to its stated plan of moving the service to support Internet standards, start will take pride of place alongside the increasingly popular ‘portal site' model - already adopted by Yahoo and Excite among others.

Users will no longer need to use the much maligned MSN client (v2.01 failed to install in the majority of users' systems), although the equally reviled Outlook email client remains.

Moving to the portal model meant significant changes at MSN, including dropping its award winning news service in favour of aggregated content (content provided by other organisations) - a move that surprised industry observers. "I didn't expect Microsoft to let one of it's strongest assets disappear," says Mike Welch, consultant at industry analyst, Inteco. Judy Gibbons, director of MSN, says the move was inevitable and will benefit users. "Our journalists drove the move to aggregate content. They viewed the news service as narrow. We wanted a much broader range of content and our editorial expertise now provides that by getting the best editorial content available from other sources."

start will provide Microsoft's email to mail service, Relay One which allows users to send an email to a recipient who then receives it as a normal letter. Hotmail, the free email service Microsoft bought last year, is also included.

Microsoft rejects the charge that start represents a strategic U-turn despite the fact it has dropped many of the services that made the original MSN so "compelling". These include the MSN client, the media intensive ‘shows' - which Microsoft dumped after disappointing attendance - and the move toward a much simpler, text oriented Web site. Jonathan Bulkeley, UK managing director of AOL says it's about time "they got it right but it's clearly an admission they got it wrong first time around."

CompuServe's UK managing director, Martin Turner, agreed that start looks like a move in the right direction but believes differentiation between it and other portals will be difficult. "Many of the search engine companies have very similar services. Why would someone pay a premium price to access the Net using MSN?"

Gibbons believes it's all in the packaging. "If you want to use the Internet with MSN you get the Outlook client, plus an MSN email account, plus an established community and a site with added value features for members. Packaging is key and the value-add is all in how our offering is presented."

The New Look ‘Portal MSN' includes:

  • 87 organisations providing free aggregated content for the site.

  • 13 main categories from news to shopping.

  • 121 sub-categories and 522 dynamic clips delivering news headings directly to the users desktops.

  • Integrated Hotmail: a free web-based email account that can be accessed anywhere in the world

  • Low-graphics site. Microsoft says this is a direct result of user feedback

What's gone:

  • Media ‘Shows'

  • MSN client

  • Original content

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