User communities at MSN - sting for Netscape

Microsoft Corp. plans to add organic Web communities to MSN soon, in an effort to attract more home users and bolster its struggling portal site, according to sources close to the company.

Several companies, including Yahoo! and Excite@Home Inc., already offer the user-created communities, which let people build personal forums where they can chat uninterrupted about a variety of topics.

Through the MSN site, people will be able to provide members-only information about family reunions, leisure activities and other events. They will also be able to chat, post photos, and send e-mails to all of the community members at once. In the future, Microsoft plans to add a calendar and photo album to the community areas.

User-created communities are one of a series of changes planned for MSN in the next month, according to sources close to the company.

Microsoft would not comment on the company's plans.

Microsoft already offers Web communities on its MSN site, but they are moderated by expert hosts. One source told ZDNN that some of the current hosts, many of whom are paid to moderate the sites, may have a limited future at MSN. The company is currently advertising for volunteer hosts on the MSN community section.

The issue of paid hosts is a hot topic among active users of Web communities. Netscape Communications Corp. let its paid hosts go in March, just days before it cancelled its Netcenter communities altogether. In addition, the U.S. Department of Labour is investigation whether America Online Inc. violated labour laws by treating volunteer hosts like employees -- requiring them to keep set schedules and file time cards without paying them.

Some analysts said it's about time Microsoft followed the lead of other portal companies with user-created communities. Bridget Leach, an analyst at Giga Information Group, said such communities drive traffic to the site, in an inexpensive way. "That type of content is more cost-effective because content is actually created by the users," Leach said. "You don't really have to do much to attract or retain them because they have an inherent self interest in going there."

But Alexis DePlanque, an analyst at Meta Group, said unmoderated communities usually don't work. "You've got to generate some qualified discussion and get people who are knowledgeable posting valuable information, or else you just get xenastockgoddess posting her hot stock tips, and nobody cares enough to come back," she said.

Luring people to MSN communities in the first place also will be a challenge, DePlanque said. "There are so many places that do that already," she said. "What are they going to offer me to make it worth my while to switch my club to MSN?" It will be difficult for non-IE users to check out the communities. The chat area is not expected to support Netscape Communication Corp.'s Navigator browser.

Already, people who want to join an existing MSN community are greeted with a page that says: "We've detected that either your browser or operating system is not compatible with the Web-based chat program used for this site." They're urged to download Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

The restriction means that Navigator-using grandmas and grandpas would have to switch to IE before chatting with their grandson, if the family decided to camp their community on the MSN site.