Microsoft lays its MSN cornerstone

Microsoft set to release a beta of its Next Generation MSN -- the first building block for its 'software as a service' vision

Microsoft's Next Generation Windows Services architecture unveiling is still a week away, but the company already is starting to lay the groundwork.

On Wednesday, Microsoft plans to post to its Web site a public beta version of its America Online competitor -- the so-called Next Generation MSN software.

Due to be commercially available later this year, this update to MSN will provide a platform via which consumers may obtain single-sign-on access to Microsoft and third-party services and applets. These services are the building blocks of Microsoft's emerging "software as a service" vision, which its top officials will outline in detail on June 1 at Next Generation Windows Services' (NGWS) coming-out party, called Forum 2000.

Microsoft will not confirm that the code for Next-Generation MSN is based on "Mars" -- a product which it solicited beta testers for last fall. However, Mars does seem to be the forerunner of the updated MSN offering.

Originally, beta testers thought Mars was a future version of Internet Explorer geared toward first-time Net users; later, Microsoft officials confirmed it was the code name for a future version of MSN aimed at simplifying Net access for consumers and home users.

Various Windows enthusiast sites on the Internet have published early screen shots and details on Mars. The BetaNews site late last week noted that Microsoft was putting the finishing touches on the new and improved MSN integrated desktop built on top of Internet Explorer.

Microsoft officials declined to equate Next Generation MSN with the Mars code name, noting that Microsoft frequently changes its code names and updates its code "at Internet speed."

But the way that Bob Visse, lead product manager for MSN, described the forthcoming MSN beta sounded awfully familiar to those tracking Mars.

Next-Generation MSN "integrates all the services and functionality that new users will need to get onto the Web," Visse said. "It will take all of those best-of-breed services, like MoneyCentral, HotMail, eshop, and integrate them into one, easy-to-install package that doesn't disrupt MSN users' existing settings."

Visse noted that Next Generation MSN users will be provided with a single-sign-on capability that will automatically authenticate them across all of these mail, bill paying, shopping and search services. He said users also will be able to access the streaming media services offered via the integrated Windows Media Player that will be part of the Next Generation MSN code. Microsoft will not be offering any paid streaming services or other digital-rights-managed offerings in this release of MSN, however, Visse acknowledged, calling these capabilities possible "future stuff."

Microsoft's hardly the only company looking to turn software into a renewable revenue source like services.

Novell is in there, too, enhancing hosting platform with authentication, security and other value-added services aimed at ISPs, application service providers (ASPs) and even large corporate customers.

On Monday, Novell announced its OnDemand Services software module, which allows hosters to offer goods and services for a monitor-able fee. With the offering, Novell is already staking out a space in the digital-rights-management space that Microsoft has yet to attempt.

"The new MSN is about management and distribution of software licences. But we can extend any number of services, with software being just one of them," said Michael Brown, product manager for Novell OnDemand Services.

Brown noted that with OnDemand, ASPs can add anything from access to a video file or access to a conference room to the list of services that can be managed by Novell's centralised eDirectory. Novell's supplementary DirCommerce Services module allows for the management of transactions and purchases.

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