Microsoft Corporation announced Monday that it will release the first public beta of its colorful next-generation MSN client, code-named "Mars," later this week. MSN Mars integrates Web browsing, searching, and digital media into a single user interface, while providing new dial-up networking services under the hood. Mars software components are also found in Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), lending credence to the notion that the system was developed hand-in-hand with Windows Me Activity Centers such as Help & Support and System Restore. Indeed, early screen shots of the MSN Mars client that were leaked by pundit John Dvorak closely resemble the Windows Me Activity Centers, though it appears to be far more colorful and vibrant. Microsoft says the release is an attempt to make the MSN service easier to use than market leader America Online (AOL).
"\[MSN Mars\] is going to be the easiest and fastest way to get on the Web," says Deanna Sanford, a product manager in MSN marketing. "AOL is focused on making it easy to get to AOL. MSN is focused on making it easy to get to the Web."
MSN has been on a bit of a growth spurt lately, adding 500,000 new customers in recent weeks thanks to a 6-month free trial for users that sign up for one year of service. MSN now has over 3 million customers, but that compares poorly to AOL, which recently surpassed the 22 million-subscriber mark. MSN is somewhat of a hidden gem for mobile users, however, because the service is easy to reach and there are few busy signals. And because MSN strays away from the chat room focus of AOL, it tends to attract a slightly more professional crowd that is less interested in proprietary content, and more interested in simply getting access to email and the Web. MSN recently began high-speed services in various areas as well