MSN 7.0 signs on to .Net, broadband

To deliver Web services as part of its .Net initiative, Microsoft Corp. released version 7.0 of its MSN Web portal Monday and said it will launch a broadband version of its MSN Internet service to reach 90 percent of U.S. broadband users within three months.

During a conference call Monday announcing the upgrade, Microsoft's vice president in charge of MSN, Yusuf Mehdi, also tipped off analysts and reporters about a version upgrade to AOL Time Warner Inc.'s Web software, due out Tuesday.

Joining Mehdi in the call, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft president and chief executive officer, said the company is "putting the heat" on AOL's Web client and Internet services with its new software release, and with new deals in the media industry to bring news, digital music and new broadband services to MSN subscribers.

"The level of competition is growing. Not only with this version but a with lot of the things around it," Ballmer said.

The initial changes to MSN are most visible in a new design to the Web portal. The site has been remodeled to closely resemble the user interface of its Hotmail free e-mail service and MSN Explorer software, the portal and browser available to subscribers of MSN Internet.

The MSN portal has also been enhanced to work best with Microsoft's new operating system, Windows XP, and the company 's .Net initiative, the emerging Internet platform for delivering software and services to users through a subscription.

"We're delivering MSN 7.0 as a showcase application for the new .Net platform," Ballmer said.

The portal will include several of Microsoft's XML (Extensible Markup Language) Web services, known as .Net My Services. Those include Microsoft's single sign-on authentication service Passport, the newly announced .Net Alerts and other services planned for release this month.

For instance, MSN users can customize their .Net Alert feature to send automated messages to a cell phone or handheld computer. The first Alert service information will be for road traffic updates and shopping, such as the availability of concert tickets.

"We really embraced this notion of .Net alerts," Mehdi said.

Along with the release of the new portal, Microsoft said it will launch broadband services with MSN Internet, with partner providers and sales channels across the U.S. Microsoft has garnered service agreements with broadband hosts Qwest Communications International Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., SBC Communications Inc. and Bell South Corp., Ballmer said, and will begin service reaching 60 percent of the nation's broadband users or about 30 million homes.

Within the next three months, Microsoft's MSN Internet service will be available to 90 percent of U.S. homes wired with broadband, Ballmer said. It has already signed deals with yet-to-be-named local broadband providers to reach those additional customers. The service will be available for US$49.99 in most cases or $39.99 for slower speed broadband at Best Buy Co., Radio Shack Corp. and Staples Inc. stores.

MSN last month drew big online crowds, according to research from Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. Of the total 270 million users logging on to the site in September, more than 32 million of those were in the U.S., Microsoft said, citing figures from the research firm. The year-old MSN Explorer software has been downloaded 14 million times, Microsoft said.

The company has left a trail of version upgrades to several of its software applications as it nears the widespread release of Windows XP, Microsoft's next operating system.

A new version of Windows Messenger software will be ready for download Oct. 25, the same day as the official Windows XP launch in New York, the company said last week. The new software will allow users to make PC-to-phone calls through third-party Web telephony providers. It will also include Microsoft's new .Net Alerts function, the messaging technology used to send notifications through instant message or e-mail.

The company will also widely launch a new Media Player and Internet Explorer Web browser in Windows XP. Makeovers to its Hotmail free-email service and Passport service were unveiled in July and August. All the new software releases were built to run most efficiently with Windows XP, Ballmer said Monday.

Microsoft's MSN division competes primarily against the AOL Internet service. Ballmer and Mehdi stressed that MSN 7.0 is pitted directly against new portal software and services from AOL. Mehdi specifically noted that the software is aimed at a Tuesday release of AOL 7.0.

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