MSN Explorer is no knockout blow

Analysts given sneak peeks at Microsoft's AOL challenger say it's clearly a play for the broadband market
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor

Analysts who got a sneak peek at Microsoft's new AOL-aping, one-stop Internet kit said it isn't the knockout blow that Microsoft had hoped for. But the new MSN Explorer could position Bill Gates and company in a bid to be the definitive broadband leader, the analysts said.

"I don't think this will make a difference in dial-up," said Bruce Kasrel of Forrester Research. "AOL has won that war."

Lydia Loizides of Jupiter Communications provided a more upbeat analysis, saying "This makes Microsoft a contender."

From the moment Microsoft began creating MSN Explorer, it has aimed squarely at AOL and its 23 million users. The company's mantra has been that the new browser is a "direct challenge to America Online".

The product's design was based, in part, on the company's survey of hundreds of AOL users. Nearly 1,000 AOL users completed two different surveys about their AOL experience and level of satisfaction.

Kasrel said it is clear Microsoft is mimicking AOL, which isn't necessarily a bad strategy. Yet he said "I don't think this will make a difference in the dial-up world. They [Microsoft] will be the number two ISP. It won't change their market position."

Kasrel said that, while the new software is "more of an experience", like AOL, and is packaged well, "I don't think it will fail, but I don't think it will be a raging success."

Loizides said the new programming has AOL beat in a couple of different categories. Installation is literally one click, accepting the user licence agreements, then "music plays in the background and the application is launched", Loizides said.

The new MSN Explorer also can manage up to nine different users, whereas AOL can only handle two, Loizides said.

She was also impressed with Microsoft's streamlined approach. Instead of opening many windows to read email, for instance, Loizides said, "I go to mail and I can see my address book and my email. It all happens in one frame."

Unlike AOL, the new Microsoft product is also accessible from any ISP, she said. "For right now, they are ramping up to become a challenger," Loizides said.

Derek Brown, managing director at WR Hambrecht, said the new upgrades have a familiar ring, echoing the MSN product release in 1997 that targeted AOL.

"I'll never discount their abilities," he said. "Clearly they have the resources and the track record to have a dramatic impact. Yet all those same factors were in place five years ago, and they haven't knocked off AOL from their perch yet."

The final judge, of course, will be the AOL audience -- 23 million strong -- that Microsoft is trying to woo away.

No one will be able to see the final version of MSN Explorer until this fall. But a second, and final, testing version will be rolled out sometime next week, according to Microsoft. A free download will be available from Microsoft's site, www.preview.msn.com. Some of MSN Explorer's new features include access to Microsoft's Hotmail, an instant messaging service and a Windows Media Player. There are also hot buttons to many of Microsoft's own Web sites, including personal finance, MSN shopping and news sites.

MSN Explorer includes an archived mail option, so users can store mail on a hard drive and clean out their regular email boxes.

It also features a way to create personalised folders under a "My Stuff" icon, and includes a personalised toolbar that tailors content to a user's ZIP code.

However, Microsoft denied some published reports Thursday that the new MSN Explorer would be bundled with a Word program.

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