MSN 14: Microsoft's New Portal
Microsoft this week will begin rolling out a massive update to one of its least-appreciated web services, the MSN portal. What's that, you say? Not a fan? Well, you might be surprised to discover that MSN is one of the most popular destinations on the web, with over 600 million users. In fact, MSN is the number one destination in 25 of the 46 markets in which it is offered.
While MSN has had a somewhat tortured history--it started out as a traditional, CompuServe-style dial-up service in 1995 and then proceeded to go through more transformations over the next decade than Madonna--it long ago settled into its current, comfortable role as a consumer-oriented starting point for the web and a huge driver of Microsoft's wider web ecosystem. MSN crosslinks and integrates with other Microsoft services like Bing and Windows Live, and it utilizes important Microsoft web platform technologies like Silverlight.
From a financial perspective, MSN also offers a tremendous ad platform for brand advertisers like Ford Motor Company, eBay, Target, and many others.
OK, so MSN is a big deal. It's also growing surprisingly fast. Microsoft says that it has added over 100 million new users in the past year alone, surpassing the audience base of Yahoo! And giving it the largest non-Google audience on the web. Only popular social networks like Facebook and Twitter are growing at a similar clip.
For all this good news, however, the MSN web site is something of a mess. It's a cluttered, "link mall" portal with too much clutter and a dated design. Researching customer needs, Microsoft has overhauled MSN and created a new version of its venerable portal, one that will be rolled out over the next three months.
From a design standpoint, the new MSN 14 is cleaner and more focused on the content its users say matter most to them. Performance has been improved dramatically, and Microsoft has added interesting integration points with key social networks--Facebook and Twitter--as well as its own Windows Live services and Hotmail. New emphasis on local content will help people making the transition away from newspapers to find events, movies, restaurants, news, and other things in their area.
"MSN is the best homepage on the web," MSN general manager Bob Visse told me during a recent briefing. "It offers the best experience for consumers, the best search experience, information and news that people care about, and convenient ways to communicate with social networks as well as the Windows Live and Hotmail experiences."
Here are some things you'll notice with the new MSN home page.
Cleaner, more modern look. The sea of blues from the previous design is gone, replaced by a more elegant white design that dispenses with over 50 percent of the links that weighed down the site before.
Focus on key areas. Key content such as news, entertainment, sports, money, and lifestyle are readily available via a small and colorful horizontal menu along the top of the main page. Video plays inline and can be played full-screen, and in HD. There is a new design focus on rich imagery as well, something that customers really enjoy in Bing.
Local. A new local module provides access to information that's geographically relevant to the user, and it uses reverse IP lookup to ensure you're not seeing New York City information if you live in, say, Boston. The content is a mix of Bing results and custom editorial content and includes such things as weather forecasts, traffic maps, professional, college, and even high school sports coverage (via Fox Sports), movies and events listings, restaurant reviews and menus, and local gas prices (with maps).
Up-to-date content. By tracking what's popular on Bing, MSN will display events that are "spiking" and could be interesting to users.
Shopping. Building off of the successful Bing shopping experience, MSN will offer a shopping module as well.
Integration with Facebook and Twitter. You can easily connect to your Facebook and Twitter accounts and display the latest Facebook Wall posts and tweets right on the MSN home page. And by utilizing a new generation of Silverlight-based MSN applications, you can optionally do much more: The Facebook app allows you to update your status, comment on posts and perform other Facebook-related tasks, all without leaving the site.
Hotmail and Windows Live integration. Relevant Windows Live services are integrated into the MSN home page, especially Hotmail, with which you can view email messages and access your contacts without leaving the site.
Mobile site. In tandem with the new MSN web portal, Microsoft is also updating its mobile web portal, which will work particularly well on high-end phones like the Apple iPhone, Windows Mobile 6.5 devices, Blackberry, and the like. The new MSN Sports mobile experience is already available, offering an amazingly rich experience including such things as play-by-play coverage of ongoing games, all in the browser. "We call this the 'extreme mobile experience,'" Mr. Visse told me. Will Microsoft deliver rich mobile applications on these phones too? No promises, but Visse said they were absolutely looking into this.
MSN 14 begins rolling out on November 3, 2009, and Microsoft expects to deliver this new interface to all users by the beginning of next year. If you don't see the new MSN page, you can view it manually by navigating to preview.msn.com now. "We have a very large user base, so we want to make sure we've ironed out the kinks before we go full tilt," Mr. Visse said.
Here are some shots of the new MSN 14 user interface.