Jesse Berst: MSN takes another swing at Web

Microsoft is revving up its Web strategy. Here's what you need to know about Gates' online road ahead.

Mark McGwire wants it. Bad. So bad he used the legal drug androstendione last year to get an edge over rival Sammy Sosa and win baseball's home run crown.

Microsoft wants it bad. The Web crown, that is. What will the world's biggest software company do to get an edge? That's what we set out to discover. Sports analysts go to training camps and practices for behind-the-scenes insights. We attended Microsoft's MSN Day event yesterday, where company execs outlined an enormous new initiative called "The Everyday Web".

The company needs a big new initiative because it was so late to figure out the online world. First it launched MSN as a proprietary service. And had to abandon that approach when the world went to the Web instead. Then it launched MSN version two as a series of hollywood-esque shows. And abandoned that brain-dead approach when nobody came to watch. Next it launched a series of content/commerce sites. Only to sell Sidewalk, partner on Carpoint and spin out Expedia as a separate company.

In short, Microsoft hasn't even hit a single much less a home run. But it keeps stepping up to the plate. This time, I think the company may finally get on base, thanks to:

  • A new approach. About two years ago, leading Web companies starting saying "the Web is about getting things done." Microsoft has finally figured out the obvious. As VP Brad Chase put it: "We're talking about making the Web as ubiquitous as the phone -- but a thousand times more useful."

  • A new boss. Former SGI exec Richard Belluzzo doesn't bring much Internet experience to his new job as head of Microsoft's Consumer and Commerce Group. But at least he wasn't recycled from the old guard Microsoft Mafia.

  • New sites. relaunches in November with search-inspired content features, zip code personalisation and improved integration of email and instant messaging. And bCentral goes into public beta next week, delivering tools and services to help small businesses.

  • New fee structure. MSN Internet Access will be updated this fall with family-friendly URL and search filtering -- and a $2 price increase to $21.95 (£14) a month for unlimited access.

  • New services. MSN's new Search Service marries traditional text crawling and directory searching with software and human intelligence. Search will be integrated with a new shopping service in November. Microsoft boasts it will have the largest database of products and services on the Web, plus smart tools and true one-stop shopping.

MSN Mobile 2.0 will debut in November, offering two-way capabilities. And this fall, WebTV will include expanded interactivity, both in e-commerce and TV programming (play along with 'Jeopardy').

How does Microsoft intend to make the Web an indispensable part of your everyday life? Beyond the short-term initiatives I described above, there are other plans on Microsoft's Everyday Web roadmap:

  • MSN Web Companion will be a simple, instant-on consumer Internet appliance for email and Web browsing. It should go into beta by year's end and will come in several form factors, including tablet and desktop.

  • Creating Web communities will become as easy as writing an email with WYSIWIG editing and exciting new collaboration features.

  • Improved searching will give you access to content on the billions of "dynamic" Web pages. Today's search engines can only retrieve info from about 800 million static Web pages.

  • Improved email will marry the richness of Outlook Express with the access-it-anywhere convenience of Web-based email.

  • Expanded instant messaging will work with handhelds and WebTVs as well as PCs.

  • Seamless e-commerce will enable you to go online and, for instance, buy a car, finance it, register it, and insure it -- all in one seamless experience.

  • Market Monitors will notify you when a desired product is on sale -- online or offline. Or it will recommend products based on your buying history and preferences.

Will Microsoft's new strategy work? tell the mailroom.