Microsoft announced this week that its Microsoft Network (MSN) will be relaunched soon as MSN 2001, while the Web browser client program, code-named Mars, will be called MSN Explorer. MSN Explorer, which is available now in a preview download, provides users with a more attractive and simplified way to access MSN and other Web sites. Microsoft says that MSN doesn't limit people with the "walled garden" of America Online (AOL), the leading online service, where it's difficult to get outside of AOL's controlled environment. And with high-speed Internet access plans ready to roll, the company says that MSN is finally able to compete toe-to-toe with AOL.
"MSN Explorer is more than just a browser," says Bob Visse, the lead product manager for MSN at Microsoft. "It’s a totally integrated Internet experience. When you log on to MSN Explorer, you can see right there in the interface how many instant messaging buddies are online, how many email messages you have in your inbox, the weather conditions specific to your local area, and links to local news. So it’s a personalized experience that blurs the line between local software applications and Internet services and activities, offering an overall great experience for consumers."
MSN Explorer integrates MSN Web services such as the newly renamed MSN Hotmail, MSN Messenger, MSN eShop, and MSN Search directly into the user interface, giving users one-click access. The design team behind MSN Explorer performed usability testing and discovered that many users were confused by online terminology. So MSN Explorer uses terms that are easier to understand, such as "Buddies" instead of "Instant Messaging." And MSN Explorer is much cleaner than before, with an uncluttered window that prevents multiple dialog boxes from popping up all over the place. "In addition to benefiting from MSN Explorer’s streamlined capabilities, users are drawn to the fact that it looks elegant and is so easy use," says John Pruit, the usability lead for MSN Explorer. "They definitely have an initial reaction to the interface that’s positive — and a lot of that is due to having such a user-focused design team."
The final release of MSN Explorer and the launch of MSN 2001, with its DSL-based high speed Internet access, are expected in October. And Microsoft will release a feature-complete "Preview 2" version of MSN Explorer sometime early next week. Microsoft's Yusuf Mehdi says that the Mars technology in MSN Explorer will also be used by other Microsoft programs; it was reported previously in WinInfo that MSN Explorer is the first iteration of Microsoft's .NET "User Experience," a new Web-enabled user interface. As for possible overlaps with Internet Explorer, the company cautions that MSN Explorer still plays second fiddle to IE. "Obviously, we'll have to see what users want," says MSN marketing manager Deanna Sanford. "For now, Internet Explorer is still definitely our main browser. This is more for people who want something easier to use.