Magazine article Online

MSN Programs a New Definition of Consumer Online

Magazine article Online

MSN Programs a New Definition of Consumer Online

Article excerpt

The history of consumer online is a search for identity, often sought by mimicking some other well-established medium. Originally it was time-sharing, in which consumers were expected to dial in and carry on tasks similar to those done by businesses during the day. Later came the transactional model (Prodigy's hope), in which consumers would shop and bank by computer. More recently there was the magazine model, popular on America Online and CompuServe, in which online periodicals copied print magazines, down to their graphics and page layouts. The perilous state of consumer online today demonstrates that none of these online adaptations has been successful, at least in their bottom line.

Now comes the latest borrowed medium, created by a consumer service that has dabbled, with mixed results, in the others. The medium is television, and the service is the new Microsoft Network (MSN), reincarnated on the Web from its proprietary service origins.

Microsoft's sudden announcement in December 1995 that MSN was moving to the Web had high shock value, especially since the company had confidently introduced it as a proprietary service only a few months earlier. But the more significant news is not MSN's new home on the Web, but its rebirth as an entertainment medium, modeled on TV, with a dash of movie flavor mixed in.


The new MSN is actually part of Microsoft's greater Internet strategy, which is based on the "If you can't lick em, join 'em' philosophy. Microsoft is developing a spectrum of Internetenabling products, to take advantage of the Web craze and to diversify from its PC software foundations. A big part of the strategy is to morph itself into an entertainment company, creating content for, among other outlets, MSN.

Microsoft's entertainment wing, Microsoft Multimedia Productions, is already a major supplier of content to MSN. The idea is to deliver the entertainment values of TV via the multimedia capabilities of the Web, with the added values of interactivity and user choice. MSN, as Microsoft's preeminent consumer product and the first venue for its entertainment programming, is the flagship in this grand scheme.

Does it all work? It depends on what you're comparing it to. Compared to "real" TV, video, and movies, MSN is a feeble copy. Compared to conventional consumer online services, including the first generation MSN, it is a stunning advance. Ultimately the judgment is the bottom line, but those results won't be in for some time.


The new MSN was introduced with great fanfare in late 1996. Although Web-based, it is not completely platform-independent. MSN requires Windows 95, and existing MSN subscribers were sent a CD with additional software. It is not just a renovation of the old MSN; it is a completely new service that unfurls major innovations in interface and content.

MSN is unlike anything you've ever seen online before. It is the biggest step in consumer online interface since the innovative but short-lived WOW! service from CompuServe. It uses a modified version of Microsoft's Internet Explorer, known as the Program Viewer (TV terminology abounds in MSN). The Program Viewer strips away all but the most essential browser commands, and shrinks them until they are barely visible. It's as if the mouse is a TV remote, instead of a computer input device.

The look and feel is also more like TV or a movie screen than the Web. There is a lot of black, white, and gray, but rather than being dull, this projects a dramatic, cinematic effect -you feel like you are at the movies. It is intensely multimedia, with much audio and animation, and numerous snatches of video, especially in the entertainment sections. Overall, the effect is impressive, appealing, and very stylish. The production values (more TV jargon!) are highly professional. You have the feeling that you are not working with a computer, but instead with some sort of new, hybrid device. …

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