Microsoft, Disney team as MSN 8 debuts

MSN butterflies -- both cardboard cutouts and costumed actors -- dotted the paths around Central Park Thursday as Microsoft Corp. launched the latest version of its MSN Internet service, poised for battle against America Online Inc.'s own recently released upgrade.

With most of MSN 8's new features, such as bolstered junk mail filtering and parental control technologies, already heavily publicized, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates had little new to announce as he took the stage beneath a mammoth portable dome nestled near Wollman Skating Rink.

Instead, Gates offered a tour of MSN 8 and a rundown of its highlights, interspersing his remarks with videos of customers extolling the service's advantages.

One segment popular with the audience -- comprising mainly press, analysts and Microsoft partners and staff -- had Gates testifying about the importance of spam filters by offering a tour through some of the unwanted e-mail that clutters his own inbox. Exhortations offering to help Gates "get out of debt now!" or achieve occupational fulfillment through a mail-order university degree drew chuckles, but one item nearly brought down the dome: A solicitation asking "are you frustrated about legal concerns?"

"This one might have been of use to me if I'd gotten it about four or five years ago," Gates said, noting that the e-mail offers access to "top law firms" for "pennies a day!"

"The law firms I've been working with do not offer their services for pennies a day, so I might have to look into that," he quipped.

In one of the speech's few news announcements, Michael Eisner, chairman and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Co., joined Gates onstage to introduce a new co-branded Internet service, Disney on MSN. The family-focused service combines MSN's features and technology with additional Disney content, including Disney's Blast content for kids and a subscription to Disney Adventures magazine.

At US$21.95 per month, Disney on MSN's pricing is the same as that of MSN's regular dial up service.

"We've been looking for a long time for a family- safe environment to take Disney to the next level," Eisner said.

Disney and Microsoft have been talking for years about ways to combine their products, but Disney had reservations about Internet service technology, including parental controls, not yet being suitably advanced, according to Gates. With MSN 8, Disney at last felt the technology was ready, he said.

Microsoft has been clear about its goal for MSN 8: Steal market share from AOL, the leading ISP in the U.S. 'Why MSN 8 is better than AOL 8' was a recurring theme at Thursday's launch; included in the packet of materials distributed at the event was a "top 10 reasons to switch to MSN 8" list.

After a three-day extravaganza in New York, including a Thursday afternoon concert by rocker Lenny Kravitz, Microsoft will hit the road with its 11,000-square-foot dome and $300 million MSN marketing budget. Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle are scheduled stops throughout the next two months as Microsoft looks to close the gap between MSN's 9 million subscriptions and AOL's 35 million.

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