MSN Relaunch: Microsoft's Content Brand Enters the Mobile First, Cloud First Era

MSN Relaunch: Microsoft's Content Brand Enters the Mobile First, Cloud First Era

Back to the future

The news that Microsoft would be rename its Bing content apps with the MSN brand was met immediately with the resistance I expected from the Windows community. But if you step back and think about it for a moment, this rebranding—and the resultant relaunch of MSN as a web-based portal for all of the information that backs these wonderful apps—actually makes sense. MSN, after all, is Microsoft's online content brand, and Bing is about search. Put another way, MSN is Microsoft's Yahoo, and Bing is Microsoft's Google.

And no offense, folks, but one of the weird bits of commentary I wrestle with regularly all over the Internet is the perception that, if you don't see something it's not popular. If you live in San Francisco, for example, you may believe that the tech world is dominated by Macs and iPhones. But step outside that bubble and things can change pretty dramatically.

And so it is with MSN. Here in the United States, Microsoft made several stabs over the years at making—and then remaking—MSN as a brand, often one that has been content-focused. Often, but not always: MSN was the original brand for Microsoft's web services and services-connected apps like Messenger, though these products and services eventually were rebranded as Windows Live. Through it all, however, MSN has been a place where for consumers to go online and get content. A web portal, essentially. (You can learn more about the history of MSN in my article, MSN: A Look Back.)

On today's mobile devices, users get content—news, sports, weather, whatever—mostly from mobile apps. But that fact doesn't dismiss the popularity of the web, especially on PCs and devices with larger screens. And MSN, in particular, has over 430 million active users, according to Microsoft. Maybe not where you live. But they're out there.

If you look at today's MSN web site, you see a traditional web portal. What's changed over the years is that the content long ago changed from being in-house (often via partners, as with MSNBC) to being curated from trusted external sources. The news stories you see on MSN.com today are from the Associated Press, Reuters, FOX Sports, Motor Trend and other experts, and Microsoft is aggregating it in a way that is hopefully useful and attractive.

But that sounds a lot like the Bing apps which debuted first in Windows 8 and then were improved and expanded with additional apps and syncing capabilities in Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone. Why Microsoft branded these apps with Bing at the time is unclear—in a January 2013 blog post, the firm noted that the apps were "powered" by Bing and provided "content from multiple sources"—but given the divergent aims of Bing and MSN, they really do make more sense as MSN apps.

And it's not just that they're content apps—featuring content aggregated from multiple sources in each case, over 1300 of them overall—but rather that giving them a web-based home, and iOS and Android clients—really completes the picture. Microsoft's other consumer services—Outlook.com, OneDrive, Xbox Music, and so on—all follow a common cloud-based structure in which the data is stored in the cloud and delivered to web and mobile clients. By moving these apps to MSN, this is now possible. (Bing.com just never made sense as a content destination, though you can see they tried this.)

Put another way, MSN.com was already aggregating news, sports, weather, and other information into a web portal. And the Bing apps were separately providing some of the same functionality in mobile app form, while providing that crucial cross-device syncing capability. You can custom-tailor the News app with news sources, for example, and track your heath in Health & Fitness. Now you can do so on the web as well. And soon you'll be able to do so via Android devices, iPhones and iPads. This makes plenty of sense.

When you look at the new MSN.com, you see a web portal that makes more sense, especially if you've experienced the Bing apps on Window and/or Windows Phone.

The new site provides a top-level toolbar for Microsoft's other consumer experiences—Outlook.com, Office, OneNote, OneDrive, Bing Maps, Xbox Music, and Skype, plus a few integrated experiences like Facebook and Twitter. Better still, it's connected: The link for Outlook.com isn't just a link, it can tell you how many unread emails you have. And many of the links have pop-down menus with even more choices.

Below that, you'll see familiar links from the Bing apps—Weather, News, Sports, Money (formerly Finance), Health & Fitness, Food & Drink and Travel, plus a few new ones that will likely continue to be served by the News app on mobile platforms: Entertainment, Lifestyle and Autos. Each of these provides a curated section of content aggregated from multiple sources, just like MSN today, and just like the Bing apps. And you can customize this list so that you only see what you want. You can even add choices like Movies, TV, Music, Tech & Science and Politics. It's your portal.

Each section likewise has sub-sections of its own. In News, you will see Headlines, US, World, Local, Technology and others, and in Health & Fitness, you will see Strength, Cardio, Nutrition, Symptom Checker, and more.

This is all good stuff. But the biggest change here is the web-based implementation of some of the former Bing app's greatest device-to-device synchronization features. For example, in Health & Fitness, you can access your diet tracker, cardio tracker, workouts, and exercises from the web. This means you might login some breakfast foods in the morning from your Windows Phone (or in the future, your iPhone or Android phone) and then add lunch on the web from a web browser on your work PC. MSN is (or soon will be) everywhere.

Each of the now-MSN-branded experiences offers some functionality like this. As I documented in Windows 8.1 Field Guide, some of the best features in these apps—and now on the web—are as follows:

Food & Drink: Collections of favorite recipes, wines and cocktails; and cooking tools like weight conversions, linear measures, roasting meat charts, oven temperature conversion, and more.

Health & Fitness: An online health profile with height, weight, daily calorie target, fitness preferences and optional HealthVault integration; a symptom checker; exercise, food intake and overall health tracking; and a 3D human body tool.

Money (formerly finance): A watchlist with favorite stocks and stock market indices, personal financial tracking with brokerage and personal investment account (E-Trade, Fidelity, etc.) integration, and useful financial tools like a retirement planner, mortgage, rent and auto payment calculators, currency conversions and more.

News: News story tracking, access to subscription news services, and news source editing.

Sports: You can follow your favorite teams and sports.

Travel: Collect favorite destinations, research and book flights and hotel, and get flight status and schedules.

Weather: Get the local weather forecast, of course, but also save favorite locations, and get conditions and forecasts for ski resorts.

In the coming weeks, Microsoft will ship versions of the Bing apps for Windows and Windows Phone in which the Bing brand is removed and the MSN brand is moved in. The new MSN is available now on the web in preview form and this new version of the site will eventually go live at MSN.com of course. And then the Android and iOS versions of these most excellent apps will arrive, sometime before the end of 2014.

Put simply, there is nothing about the move to MSN branding that undercuts anything Microsoft previously accomplished with the Bing content apps. And the move to the web, and to successful mobile platforms like Android and iOS, is good news for everyone.

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