MSN: A Look Back

Before there was Windows Live, Microsoft's Internet services brand was MSN, which was originally shorthand for "The Microsoft Network" and was marketed as a CompuServe-like dial-up Internet access service that was bundled in Windows 95. Since then, MSN has gone through a number of phases, and the brand is still alive and well today, though much has changed over the years.

Paul Thurrott

July 10, 2011

6 Min Read
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Before there was Windows Live, Microsoft's Internet services brand was MSN, which was originally shorthand for "The Microsoft Network" and was marketed as a CompuServe-like dial-up Internet access service that was bundled in Windows 95. It's hard to remember those days, but MSN was in fact the kickoff point for the United States government's historic antitrust battle against Microsoft: AOL, at the time the dominant online service, feared that by bundling its online service in Windows, Microsoft could usurp its market position. So it complained to the US government and won a concession from Microsoft where AOL's service was easily accessible in Windows 95 as well.

But AOL needn't have feared MSN. The original version of the service was startlingly unsuccessful, a first clue that not everything Microsoft touched turned to gold. But like other Microsoft products that people position in the defeat column, it arrived with some unique functionality that even today seems forward leaning. For example, instead of creating an application front-end for the service, as CompuServe and AOL did at the time, Microsoft directly integrated MSN into Windows 95, and you navigate through the service's areas as you did through the file system, using specially customized Explorer windows. It was actually pretty innovative.

But it was also unsuccessful, so MSN went through a variety of major changes, each as unsuccessful as the last. There was the dial-up Internet access phase, where MSN was integrated into Windows (98) in an entirely different fashion, and you could access its many content points via a nice-looking circular red button in the system tray and a customized black and red version of Internet Explorer. Then there was the Microsoft-as-Internet-content-provider phase, where MSN turned briefly into a series of web destinations, like web-based TV shows, and MSN sites like "Mungo Park" ruled the day.

Quickly surmising that content creation was expensive and highly non-lucrative, Microsoft then moved to make MSN into its Internet services brand, and it began branding all of its Internet-leaning products, aside from, notably, Internet Explorer, as MSN. In this way, this latter MSN phase is indeed analogous to Windows Live today, and when Microsoft introduced its Windows Live brand, it renamed most MSN properties and turned MSN (via into a standard Internet portal, and the default home page in Internet Explorer. Because of this, MSN is still somewhat "popular"--that is, millions of people visit the site, though one wonders whether they even know they have a choice--but is a far cry from its original vision. Arguably, that's always been the case.

Anyway, these articles date from the 2002 to 2005 period before the advent of Windows Live, while Microsoft was transitioning from its dial-up past and trying to establish a popular consumer brand on the Internet. So some of the products mentioned below still exist today in some form, usually with an updated, Windows Live-based name. But many are long gone, a testament to Microsoft's largely unsuccessful, non-IE efforts to establish a new brand for itself on the web.

As with other retrospectives, the newer articles are at the top.

MSN Mail Beta Preview - October 10, 2005

Microsoft and MSN have big plans for Hotmail. The company has been working for the past several months on a next generation Web mail solution that codenamed Kahuna and currently goes by the nondescript name "Mail Beta". It will likely replace Hotmail when it's released in the first half of 2006.

MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search Review - May 27, 2005

MSN Toolbar Suite 2.0 has been renamed again to MSN Search Toolbar with Windows Desktop Search (WDS), a moniker that speaks volumes about the importance Microsoft now places in this product. Microsoft suddenly has an excellent desktop search feature, available for free, that rivals any of the competition while providing a degree of OS integration that is unheard of.

MSN: The Inside Story, Part Three: Services that Communicate - May 23, 2005

The MSN organization closely watches for integration points across all the experiences it offers. This is an outcropping of the reorganization MSN did, and a shift in the mentality where they think more about what the user wants to accomplish, rather than trying to jam features into the shape of the application.

MSN: The Inside Story, Part Two: Fly, Butterfly - May 20, 2005

The MSN division is housed several blocks away from the main Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington at a place called Red West. The distance between Red West and the main campus has an interesting effect on both visitors and employees. Though it resembles the rest of Microsoft, and is indeed a part of Microsoft, it is also quite clearly a different place as well.

MSN: The Inside Story - May 19, 2005

Here is the story of MSN's rebirth as an Internet services powerhouse. In part one, I quickly examine the convoluted history of MSN, which has been repurposed and re-imagined repeatedly during its decade-long life.

MSN Spaces Review - April 21, 2005

MSN Spaces is a free blogging service that debuted in beta form in December 2004. In the four months since then, the service has seen phenomenal success: It's already the number two or three blog solution worldwide. Not too shabby.

MSN Messenger 7.0 Review - April 8, 2005

MSN Messenger 7.0 is an impressive upgrade to an already well-designed communications tool. And if you're already an MSN subscriber of some kind, all the better: Microsoft has crafted an incredible amount of integration with other MSN services into this product. It's a model the rest of Microsoft would do well to emulate.

MSN Search Review - February 1, 2005

Rumors of Microsoft's Web search challenge to market leader Google have been brewing for years now. But unlike previous versions of the search tool on MSN's Web site, the new MSN Search was built from the ground up, using new search algorithms, a new Web crawler, and a new indexing engine that the company hopes will set it apart from the competition.

MSN Music Review - January 3, 2005

MSN Music isn't a flash in the pan, and Microsoft is in it for the long haul. If that doesn't strike fear in the hearts of Microsoft's competitors, then they've already given up.

MSN Toolbar Suite Preview - December 12, 2004

While the blandly named MSN Toolbar Suite may conjure up a 2.0 version of the MSN Toolbar for Internet Explorer that was first issued in March 2004, the product is actually quite a bit more impressive and aggressive than that. It offers a number of toolbar-based entry points to both local and Web searching.

MSN Music Preview - September 2, 2004

Microsoft is jumping into the digital music service fray. Its entry, currently in beta, is called MSN Music, and will likely establish the company as the number two player pretty quickly. Let's take a look and see if it's worthy of that position.

MSN 8 Review - October 28, 2002

MSN 8 is highly customizable, works in offline mode, and is applicable to a wide range of users, from the utmost beginner to the hard core techie who wants everything set up a certain way. MSN 8, suddenly, is an awesome product for just about anyone interested in accessing the Internet. And that's almost everyone, isn't it?

About the Author(s)

Paul Thurrott

Paul Thurrott is senior technical analyst for Windows IT Pro. He writes the SuperSite for Windows, a weekly editorial for Windows IT Pro UPDATE, and a daily Windows news and information newsletter called WinInfo Daily UPDATE.

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