Microsoft has taken the wraps off its new Microsoft Network (MSN) which features a browser-based interface and enough entertainment programming to merit creation of its own Internet production studio.
The new MSN will be launched on November 1 for Windows 95 users. More than 100,000 of MSN's current 1.6 million customers have begun previewing it.
Meanwhile, Microsoft Multimedia Productions, known as M3P (M-cubed-P), is the development arm of MSN. It will be based in Redmond and have offices in Los Angeles and New York.
With its new MSN, Microsoft is targeting people who are not already online and not necessarily going after members of rival service providers, MSN vice-president Laura Jennings says. "We are not trying to have ... the breadth and depth of content that AOL (America Online), after its many years, has," she says.
One analyst is praising the "micro-casting" aspect of the new MSN which targets different content for narrow niches and says Microsoft will be prepared once the shift to "mid-band computing" comes. "This represents a strong move forward for the commercial online service market," says Allen Weiner, an analyst at Dataquest in San Jose, California. "It will raise the bar sufficiently so that AOL will have to come up with something" to compete.
However, Weiner questions how well the service will function for the majority of Internet users who have 14.4kbit/s or 28.8kbit/s modems and says Microsoft hasn't adequately addressed customer service issues.
MSN is designed for users of 14.4 modems with a 486 or higher computer and 8Mb of RAM, a company executive says.
The new MSN continues Microsoft's tradition of developing for Windows 95 before supporting existing Windows 3.1 users. Microsoft has no commitment to provide MSN for its 16-bit operating system platform, according to Jennings. "It's a cost-benefit tradeoff," she says. "There's so much growth left in Windows 95. We expect to more than double the subscriber base by the end of the year."
The new MSN's slick interface, which is called the program viewer and based on the Internet Explorer, has a navigation bar at the top with guides to four MSN content areas: "OnStage", for news and entertainment; "Communicate", for email and chat; "Find", for searches; and "Essentials", for services.
OnStage includes more than 20 Web shows on six channels, or categories: news; entertainment, art and science; health and wealth; one geared toward young adults and teenagers; and another for youth. Programs include MSNBC; the "Slate" magazine; "Retrospect 360", a biweekly series of productions on historical events and issues' "Mungo Park", an adventure show; "UnderWire" for women; and "Second City News", for a comical look at events.
Through Essentials, users can make travel arrangements and buy airline tickets, check on stocks, do research through Encarta encyclopedia online and find information about cars or make purchases through MSN Plaza.
In the Communicate area, users can search for particular individuals in chat rooms and view their chat discussions in comic strip form. Microsoft is moving to take MSN users off the complex Exchange mail client and move them to the Athena mail client by early 1997, according to Jennings.
MSN users can choose to pay hourly rates or for unlimited usage. The per-hour rates are: US$6.95 per month for five hours or US$69.95 per year for five hours, US$2.50 per additional hour for each. Unlimited usage is US$19.95 per month and ISDN unlimited access is US$49.95.
Internet users who already have an access provider can also use MSN. Anyone, including those without Windows 95, can access for free many of the services offered through MSN, such as services that are based on ads, subscriptions or transactions. For Windows 95 users, unlimited access to all MSN content will cost US$6.95 per month and US$69.95 per year.
The services is not expected to be profitable for about three year. Microsoft is on the Web at http://www.microsoft.com.