Why Microsoft finally <BR>'gets' the Web

Jesse Berst, Editorial DirectorZDNet AnchorDeskImagine you're at the tuxedo shop helping your teenage son choose a prom outfit. He struts out of the dressing room in a powder blue tux.

Jesse Berst, Editorial Director
ZDNet AnchorDesk



Imagine you're at the tuxedo shop helping your teenage son choose a prom outfit. He struts out of the dressing room in a powder blue tux. He actually thinks he looks great. You wince, then urge him to try a black one.

For years, I've been wincing at MSN's silly, sophomoric Web efforts. Remember the original, proprietary version that was incompatible with the Internet? Or Mungo Park, the exotic travelogue? Or all those cheesy, Hollywood-esque shows?

So I was prepared for the worst recently when the company invited me on campus to preview MSN's new features. Click for more.

What a pleasant surprise. MSN has finally stumbled on a strategy that suits its strengths. Better yet, it's a strategy that suits its audience. One that focuses on helping people get stuff done. MSN doesn't have it exactly right. Not yet, at least. But I expect MSN to gradually improve. It may even catch up to America Online and Yahoo in utility and value (if not in subscribers).

MSN has finally figured out that productivity is key to the Web experience. Three examples:

Integrated message center. As soon as you log on to MSN, you'll be able to glance at your personal message center to see if you have new mail, new chat activities and to see which of your friends is online.

Improved personalization. You can reconfigure the MSN home page to work for you. Choose a favorite color scheme or tweak the layout. Type in your zip code and get local news and weather updates. Add your time zone and receive info on local events. Indicate which special-interest content you'd like to see regularly.

Customized community. There are many places to build an online community. But the new MSN service may out-perform them all. MSN's goal is to make building a Web community as simple as creating an Office document. With its new online tools, users can make highly customizable HTML pages with lists, custom navigation and a full range of communications tools -- message boards, email, chat.

There's more on the drawing board, including new calendaring, richer chat and other service improvements I told you about in September. Click for more.

If MSN stays the course, if it continues to focus on no-nonsense, help-me-get-something-done features, it could well offer one of the world's best online experiences.

And that's good news for you. An improved MSN will give you another online option. And it will force the other portals to improve. Either way, you win.

I'm the one who loses. For years, I always had a fallback on a slow news day. I could always make fun of the morons at MSN. Now that they're wising up, I'll have to take cheap shots at somebody else.

Don't worry, though. I'll think of someone.

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