The long and winding road to MSN's reinvention as a social hub

It took a couple of years, but Microsoft is finally making good on some of the ideas officials had for making the company's MSN home page more viable. On November 4, Microsoft launched a preview of the fruit of its efforts: A radically redesigned MSN.com with Facebook and Twitter integration.
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

It took a couple of years, but Microsoft is finally making good on some of the ideas officials had for making the company's MSN home page more viable.

Back in 2007, former Senior Vice President of Microsoft's Online Services Group Steve Berkowitz said Microsoft's goal was to integrate more social-networking tools and pre-programmed content into the MSN home page. On November 4, Microsoft made public a preview of a new MSN home page that integrates Facebook and Twitter. (And Windows Live, too, the Softies note, usually as an afterthought.)

The revamped MSN home page -- which execs say is the most sweeping face-lift the MSN.com site has had in close to a decade -- looks less cluttered and easier to navigate. It's also faster to load and has lost a lot of the "blue links" that dominate the current MSN.com page. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft's Bing search technology is deeply integrated into the new design.

See Gallery: The past and future of MSN

The final version of the new MSN.com is slated to go live in early 2010.

"If there's a hot new search term, we can put that on the page. We can surface Twitter and Facebook feeds to make real-time search available on MSN," said Bob Visse, General Manager of MSN Product Management.

There's also a big focus on making "local experiences" easier for MSN.com users to find and surface, Visse said. Microsoft will allow users to "interact with content in a programmable way." Silverlight isn't required, but if users have it installed on their PCs, it will "enhance" their video-viewing experience, Visse said. He said Microsoft will offer a list of Silverlight applications -- such as gas-price indicator, for example -- that users can get if they have Microsoft's Flash competitor installed.

In 2008, Microsoft made MSN part of the combined Search, Portal and Advertising Group as part of one of the company's regular reorgs. At that time, officials said Microsoft's goal was to make MSN.com more of a socially networked platform. In an e-mail to employees, Senior Vice President of R&D for Online Services Satya Nadella said MSN was  Microsoft’s single largest source of ad revenue. He also promised that the next version of MSN would be “a software engine that delivers the most relevant and social online content experience."

It's easy to forget that shortly before Microsoft decided to focus on MSN as one of its major vehicles for consumer outreach, advertising and search that the company came close to getting out of the portal business. Berkowitz was one of the main execs who helped convince management that there was value in MSN and that Microsoft should keep the platform around.

These days, Microsoft is claiming that it has the largest worldwide audience of any of the consumer-focused portals on the Web. According to the company, 100 million people in the U.S. visit MSN every single month, and MSN added over 10 million new customers in the past year.

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