MSN 'Mars' beta released: Welcome to the Microsoft Internet

As expected, Microsoft issued the first beta release of its new Microsoft Network client, code-named "Mars," on Wednesday. But the program is not quite what anyone expected: Rather than require an MSN account, it is instead open to anyone with a free Hotmail account, making it a Microsoft-oriented shell around the Internet, with links to MSN Web sites, Hotmail, and MSN Instant Messenger. And though MSN 6, as it will ultimately be called, is highly configurable, make no mistake about its purpose: An MSN-oriented toolbar cannot be removed or resized, and the default MSN home page cannot be changed. In this regard, MSN 6, as a free Internet shell for one and all, is really just a first peak at Microsoft's vision for the future of the Internet. Ladies, and gentlemen, welcome to the Microsoft Internet.

As mentioned in the release notes, MSN 6 "Mars" Preview 1 is designed for U.S. English versions of Windows, though it will also run on non-English versions of Windows. It requires a Windows 95, 98, NT 4.0, 2000, or Me with Internet Explorer 5.0 or higher. And users must have a valid Hotmail account to install and use the program. MSN 6 also supports multiple users, with a Neptune-like sign-in screen that provides small graphics to represent each user.

The MSN 6 user interface uses soft pastel colors wrapped around a standard IE browser. A non-movable or resizable channel bar, featuring links to MSN Web sites, appears on the left (Netscape 6 features something similar, but you can remove it). The program includes an embedded version of Windows Media Player that shows off Microsoft's ability to meld its traditional Windows user interface components with HTML. And MSN Messenger is available as well, even if the program wasn't previously installed. Customization occurs through a nice Web site, giving the entire product a look and feel similar to the Activity Centers that the company plans to include in future versions of Windows. Indeed, it's been suggested that MSN 6 is, in many ways, a design study for a future Windows user interface, and it's likely that this future, skinnable UI would feature an optional MSN shell.

But that is, in many ways, the problem with MSN 6: It's too closely tied to Microsoft's Internet services. If MSN 6 required an MSN account, this would be understandable, and the product could be compared to AOL 5, the latest version of America Online's program. But because MSN 6 is available to anyone with a free Hotmail account, it's disturbing to see how intractable the program is. You can't change the home page to your own choice, for example, or fill the channel bar with sites you like to visit. Instead, MSN 6 wraps you into Microsoft's limited view of the Internet, something that will ultimately drive sophisticated users away. And, of course, you must open a Microsoft Hotmail account, though it is free. Whether MSN 6 will be a hit with new users remains to be seen. But it wouldn't have been hard to provide the best of both worlds and give power users the ability to heavily customize the product, as they'll be able to with Netscape 6.

Another disturbing problem with MSN 6 is its behavior of subverting browser settings on the system on which it's running. Normally, the default browser is chosen by the user, so if one wanted to have Netscape come up each time a hyperlink was clicked in an email, for example, then that is what would happen. However, when MSN 6 is running, it seizes control of the system, regardless of which program is configured as the default browser. And the MSN 6 window that appears when you click on a hyperlink from an email application is not customizable: Regardless of how you modify its size, it will always appear at the same annoyingly small size. Ultimately, these problems doom this preview version of MSN 6 to be nothing more than an Easter Egg-colored curiosity.

However, MSN 6 is just a technology preview and, as a relatively small download, it's worth checking out. Note also that the initial preview of MSN 6 represents only the minimum install of this product: Future versions will feature customizable feature sets and new dial-up networking components for MSN account holders. For more information about MSN 6 and a free download, please visit the MSN Web site

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