By Timothy J. Mullaney Last year, Nortel Networks ran an eye-catching TV ad campaign asking, "What do you want the Internet to be?" When it comes to the consumer Internet, AOL Time Warner and Microsoft are betting that you and I to have different answers to that question.
Microsoft thinks we want the Net to be a platform for services, a handy way to organize tasks, and frame and execute decisions. The world's most powerful software company has placed its chips on the idea that we want the Internet to be a lot like software. By contrast, AOL is a media and information company by heritage. Its take is that people want information -- about everything from stocks to entertainment -- with software and utilities taking an important but more secondary role.
The contrast between the companies becomes more stark with the update of Microsoft's MSN.com portal, which rolled out new features throughout last month. Paralleling changes to the company's MSN online service, the big difference in the new MSN.com is that it's even more squarely about delivering services through software -- and through Microsoft-affiliated Web sites.
TASK LINKS. Whether you like it or not depends on your answer to Nortel's question. If you agree with Microsoft, you'll like the update. If not, you won't hate it -- MSN.com still provides news and entertainment, too -- but you won't find it a compelling reason to use MSN.com more often than you did before.
The most obvious change is the allocation of the prime real estate on the left-hand side of MSN.com's welcome screen. Instead of links to different content channels -- as are present in the corresponding area of AOL 7.0, which hit the market last month -- MSN.com gives this space over to a series of links to specific tasks.
"Air Tickets" takes you to Expedia.com, in which Microsoft is the majority owner, pending a sale of its stake. "Buy Books" takes you to BarnesandNoble.com. And it continues with "Buy Music," "Hotel Deals," "Send Money," "Wireless Updates," and more. Further down on the left is a collection of daily news-you-can-use like traffic updates and more services such as "find a classmate," MSN Calendar, "Rent an Apartment," and so on.
DAILY CHORES? The emphasis in this upgrade, the company says, is on making MSN.com more practical and useful. The approach also provides many references to Microsoft sites like HomeAdvisor, which competes with Homestore.com in real estate services, and Expedia. Indeed, the actual services provided look as if they were selected with more of an eye on the availability of partners than the needs of site users.
Classmates.com, for example, is an eagerly marketed and even rather successful Web site, but most people don't consider looking up high school chums a part of their daily routine. Same with "Rent an Apartment" or "Send Money," which connects you to a relatively new Citibank service that lets you send money to pals via e-mail. Why do these features rate front-page, primo real estate?
Another change is that the latest version rolls out some of the first of Microsoft's .NET services, which the company hopes will cement loyalty to MSN and MSN.com. Its traffic updates are one example of this kind of service. Go through MSN's Carpoint site, which already was a worthy rival to big car sites like Edmunds.com or Autobytel.com, and you can set a profile for a "My Car" section. MSN.com will automatically remind you of scheduled maintenance intervals and send you alerts of traffic congestion in your area.
SMART EXTENSION. It sounds great, but I found the alert service rather uneven: For some reason, it can send you alerts of traffic tieups near Mountain Lakes, N.J., the town of 5,000 where I grew up, but not to Maplewood or South Orange, N.J., the much larger and more congested area where I live now. It had Montville, where my in-laws live, but not the larger Montclair. So its coverage needs some work.
Similarly, the MyMusic section of the site will alert you to new records or concerts by artists you select. The alerts can be delivered though your instant-messaging software (if it's Microsoft), to your e-mail (but it'll guide you to a Microsoft Hotmail account, rather than, for example, the AOL or BusinessWeek accounts I use daily), or to your wireless device. It's a smart extension of Web personalization and will doubtless be useful to some of the people some of the time.
One way to understand MSN's changes is to contrast them with the recent upgrades to AOL, which focused on bringing users more localized information and more broadband content rather than more software. The biggest change in AOL 7.0 was its reallocation of prime entry-screen real estate -- on the upper right of the front page, in its case -- to local news and entertainment information from AOL's "Local Guides" section.
RAW INFO. AOL decided its users wanted more easy-to-find information about what's happening near them in the physical world -- regardless of whether AOL could also link the information to some service AOL providers. For example, AOL will give you movie listings in your area even if its MovieFone service doesn't have a deal to sell tickets to a specific theater. Microsoft's approach is, by comparison, more practical in the here-and-now. AOL's might give you more information to work with, however, to use in your own way for purposes no one at either company might predict.
This difference is one mostly of emphasis, since MSN.com has plenty of news and raw information, and AOL has lots of links to calendars, online brokers, ticket-buying services, and other task-related sites. But at MSN.com you have to look harder for certain kinds of information -- and, in toto, AOL will often have more.
The personal-finance channels are a good example. MSN.com is very proud of its "StockScouter" stock-screening software and highlights it with large and prominent links to the system. AOL has stock-screening software, but all or most of it appears to have been procured from one partner or another. Instead, AOL's business coverage highlights news and expert analysis -- not a bad strategy if your corporate parent owns CNN and business magazines like Fortune and SmartMoney. (AOL is also a online distribution partner for BusinessWeek).
BUSINESS TIES. The bottom line on the new MSN.com: It plays to the software giant's existing strengths, which its executives are convinced hold the key to the Internet's future. If you want the Net to be the way you organize your daily affairs, replacing or critically supplementing your PC, address book, and handheld, you'll probably find MSN.com more useful and intuitive than before. You'll also find yourself doing an increasing amount of business with Microsoft -- not that there's anything wrong with that.
If you think the Internet is about exposing yourself to new ideas and information that you decide how to use, an AOL or a content-aggregation site like Yahoo! might be more your speed. Mullaney writes the Clicks & Misses column for BusinessWeek e.biz