MSN 8 Takes a Page from the .NET My Services Playbook

MSN 8 will deliver many of the services that Microsoft intended .NET My Services to deliver

Remember .NET My Services? Originally hailed as a Web services tour de force that would move Microsoft definitively into the subscription software market, .NET My Services (formerly code-named HailStorm), died a sudden death earlier this year when the company announced that it was abandoning the service. Microsoft designed .NET My Services to provide core identity services to consumers and businesses on the Web, including email, contact information, and calendar and eWallet functionality. .NET UPDATE readers might recall from the April 18, 2002, issue that Microsoft cancelled .NET My Services because none of the company's corporate partners were willing to cede control of private customer data to the software giant's servers. Microsoft then decided to develop a new server product for its partners that would let those companies implement proprietary identity services. That product, which will take the form of a new .NET Enterprise Server, is expected sometime in 2003.

One obvious piece missing from the revised HailStorm plan is the consumer side of the market. At the time Microsoft announced the HailStorm cancellation, the company didn't reveal how it would eventually make .NET My Services products available to end users, although it did mention that its upcoming server product would power MSN online properties as a natural extension to the .NET Passport service. Since then, the company has been mute on the subject.

However, on October 24, Microsoft will release MSN 8, the most recent version of its online service. After looking at a beta version of the software, I think MSN 8 is targeted to deliver many of the same services Microsoft had originally intended .NET My Services to deliver. Because MSN is a paid subscription service, MSN 8 delivers the most important aspect of the .NET vision, at least from Microsoft's perspective: a regular revenue stream.

Naturally, Microsoft has had to adjust the way it delivers MSN services online because many of these services are available for free to non-MSN subscribers today. That situation will change with the MSN 8 release. Here's what's new in MSN 8.

No More Freebies
In earlier MSN versions, Microsoft provided the MSN client, originally known as MSN Explorer, free to Windows users and included it in Windows XP. This Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE)-based client provides a relatively intractable interface to various MSN services, such as email, MSN Calendar, and MSN Money. But the MSN client is free no more: With MSN 8, the MSN client can be had only as part of the MSN dial-up and broadband subscriber packages or for a $10 per month fee that will give non-MSN users the client and various premium subscription services. Beta testers working with MSN 8 describe the release as friendly, more intuitive, and more malleable than its MSN Explorer predecessors. But the software is still tightly integrated in MSN services; you can't, for example, change your MSN 8 home page to a non-MSN site.

Premium Subscription Services
MSN 8 subscribers will get access to unique Web services, including financial services and investing through MSN Money, and photo sharing through MSN Photos. Sites such as MSN Learning & Research, MSN Health, and the company's other online properties will offer content exclusive to MSN 8 users.

Features Similar to .NET My Services
Features such as MSN email, MSN calendaring, .NET Passport Wallet and location services, and other services sound similar to what Microsoft originally planned to offer through .NET My Services. This is no coincidence. These features will be subtly improved in the MSN 8 client, thanks to better UIs and integrated access through the MSN client.

MSN-Only Features
MSN users now access a Web-based email client similar to Hotmail's. MSN 8 will feature a much nicer-looking UI, better junk-mail removal, antivirus functionality, message-filtering capabilities, and parental controls. MSN 8 will ship with a unique version of MSN Messenger 5, Microsoft's upcoming Instant Messaging (IM) client. MSN Messenger 5 for MSN 8 adds an integrated HTML panel called MSN Today, a more functional address book, a "Browse the Web Together" feature that lets two users browse the same Web pages while chatting, and a contacts-sharing feature.

ICS and Home Networking
In addition to being the only major ISP that allows and supports Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) and home networking for free, Microsoft will offer MSN 8 users a discount on the new Microsoft Broadband Networking line of products, which includes wired and wireless base stations and various networking adapters. The company is offering kits for home PCs and notebooks that bundle various products together as well. For example, you can have the $150 wireless base station for only $120 if you're an MSN 8 subscriber. But the real benefit is that Microsoft will offer phone support to help you set up your home network and configure your shared Internet connection between multiple computers if you don't have the time, ability, or inclination to do so on your own. Other ISPs charge additional monthly fees for such a feature, if they offer it at all.

Microsoft faces a few problems with MSN 8 adoption, the most obvious of which affects its high-speed service, MSN Broadband. Although most US homes have access to at least one broadband alternative to dial-up connections, only 10 percent actually take advantage of the service. On the other hand, broadband adoption is increasing rapidly, and new services such as MSN 8, which offer unique services and content, might help further drive broadband adoption.

MSN 8 must also tackle its nemesis, AOL, which attracts several times the number of subscribers that MSN does. However, AOL's parent company, AOL Time Warner, is experiencing financial difficulties, and the most recent AOL versions have been lackluster upgrades with outdated interfaces and poor email clients. With an intriguing advertising campaign aimed at converting AOL users to MSN and a compelling set of MSN 8-only features, Microsoft might just win over some AOL users. Most important, Microsoft is finally addressing the consumer side of the Web services market with a product that's worth investigating. After 2 years of hype, MSN 8 is Microsoft's best example yet of .NET subscription software services in action.

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