Microsoft Releases Final Beta of MSN Explorer

With America Online Inc. in its sights as the latest target of its "embrace and extend" strategy, Microsoft Corp. has released the final beta version of MSN Explorer, a services-and-software upgrade to the Microsoft Network (MSN).

Billed by the Redmond, Wash., software company as "a portal and browser in one," MSN Explorer integrates several Web offerings into one package -- among them the free Hotmail e-mail client, MSN Messenger instant messaging service, and the Windows Media Player.

MSN Explorer -- formerly code-named Next Generation MSN -- is a key piece of Microsoft's .NET strategy, which aims to make its Windows and Windows-based products available over the Internet as services on a wide array of devices.

"MSN Explorer delivers two clear benefits for consumers: the easiest way to sign up and get on the Internet, and a personalized home base on the Internet that helps people be more productive in life," said Yusuf Mehdi, vice president for MSN marketing, in a statement. "The final release of MSN Explorer will offer a unique solution and alternative for consumers unfulfilled with their current ISP and Web experience."

The beta, dubbed Preview 2, will be available this week for download at preview.msn.com, said company officials, who would not divulge a final release date.

Microsoft has been chasing AOL for years, and only recently have analysts and observers deemed its MSN strategy a success. Earlier this month, AOL announced that it has 22.2 million subscribers, far outpacing MSN's 3 million subscribers. However, Microsoft touts MSN as "the most popular destination on the Internet," referring to a recent survey indicating that in June, MSN attracted 201 million unique visitors worldwide.

The MSN Explorer interface will be highly customizable, company officials said, with single-click access to Internet services such as Web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, personal finance functions, and Internet searching. It also will allow for single authentication, relying on Passport, to give uses access to multiple sites with a single log-in.

The MSN Explorer is the first consumer deliverable of the .NET initiative, which was unveiled in late June.

Kit and caboodle

MSN Explorer will offer a wide range of Microsoft software and services.

* Internet Explorer

* Outlook Express

* Windows Media Player

* Hotmail

* MSN Messenger

* MoneyCentral

* MSN Shop

* MSN Search

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