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December 3, 2010

MSN celebrates 15 years - of lost opportunity?

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by Brian Turner

It was 15 years ago this week that MSN launched as an internet portal for Microsoft, and developed into one of the first integrated online experiences for many people joining the internet.

It could even be said that MSN, not least through its communities and news offering, was the first real example of what would later be called “Web 2.0″.

Unfortunately, Microsoft have rarely been clued up with the internet, and MSN is no exception.

While other companies such as Myspace and Facebook were trying to develop their online communities, Microsoft sold off its communities to Multiply.com, instead looking to start from scratch with Live Groups.

The Live platform always suffered problems, being user-unfriendly, and with awful URLs - at least Myspace and Facebook tried to use simplified URLs.

It seems that the main problem with Microsoft is that they develop internet services with their own developers in mind, not users. And if something looks a little difficult - such as porting millions of users from MSN groups to Live groups - they simply give up.

MSN groups was, for people like myself, the first experience of the internet. MSN’s closed wall approach meant that users feeling uncertain about the wider internet had a place to explore that felt safe.

The problem was that Microsoft never really took seriously user interests. After all, if MSN was provided for free, why make any real effort to support it?

The result was that people (like myself) grew tired of managing MSN communities when Microsoft would not provide the tools to deal with problem members (trolls could easily sign up under a different alias, making banning a persistent troll impossible).

And more than one large established community I was a member of was “accidentally deleted”. We took it as a sign we were using too many server resources, so were deleted for convenience.

Microsoft also made using the MSN portal increasingly difficult.

Remember when you could use a Hotmail account as a spare? Not after Microsoft decided to cull Hotmail accounts showing least activity.

And even if you did pay for Microsoft’s online services, such as a premium Hotmail account for extra storage (in the days before Google kicked them into gear) or a business listing, cancelling billing become a nightmare.

Google is a very clever company. It realised that collecting a mass of user behaviour data could help shape its own commercial services, making them more useful for advertisers and users together.

Microsoft appears to have just seen the user data it collected as an annoyance, an inconvenience - even though it offered its own PPC platform and even developed its own search engine. Microsoft couldn’t integrate web services under a useful overall aim. Just a name.

And that was another problem - despite Microsoft’s attempt to integrate MSN services for users, the company seems to have treated each service department in an isolated way.

The result was a disjointed and unfriendly service for serious users, and Google simply trumped Microsoft through integrating everything, at every level.

The result now is that even though Microsoft was on the web years before Google, even through Microsoft offered social networking a decade before anyone else, even though Microsoft has its own search engine technology - the company has consistently failed to be significant in any of these areas.

It appears that Microsoft become complacent by the fact that Internet Explorer, by default, originally had MSN set as its homepage. So Microsoft never really had to work hard to attract users.

And once users were in, during the dotcom boom, advertising revenue gave Microsoft to support MSN services. Once the dotcom bubble burst and the advertising market with it, Microsoft showed little obvious interest in supporting its communities.

In all of this, the words “wasted opportunity” can only be underlined, especially as in recent years Microsoft has come to realise the importance of developing strong online tools.

But with too much focus on big-spending multinationals for their bread and butter, Microsoft has left the larger general consumer market poorly tapped. And even Google are now tackling Microsoft head on with its suite of free online office tools.

MSN is a name I’ll remember fondly as my first playground on the internet; a play I quickly outgrew through frustration as a user; and a resounding bell to a failed online venture because Microsoft has never really understood the internet, user interests, and has wasted every innovation it branded under that name.

In the meantime, MSN still exists, apparently. But it increasingly looks like nothing more than a revision of the early internet portals that most companies dropped or failed to keep supported. And even those companies still pushing in that way, such as AOL, are at least trying to increase their presence and usefulness to users.

MSN, for its part, is just another legacy system that fails to justify itself on the modern web, and only seems to keep running because its owned by a billion dollar computing company that understands it needs a web presence, but just isn’t sure how to use one.

Story link: MSN celebrates 15 years - of lost opportunity?


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