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Word processor to be integrated with MSN Explorer client

MSN - where do you want to stay today?

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In among the pre-launch spin supporting MSN Explorer, Microsoft consumer business chief Rick Belluzo has lobbed-in a highly significant signpost. Future version of the MSN client, he told the WSJ (which seems not to have grasped the import of the blurt) will include a word processor.

We've moved on quite a bit from the point earlier this year when MSN execs were - hoplessly implausibly - telling people they didn't yet know how MSN fitted into the .NET strategy. Belluzo is now saying that MSN illustrates the principles of .NET, and that it's moving towards "delivering a near-complete computing experience" (the WSJ's phrasing). It's in that context that the lack of a word processor, and the consequent need to add one, arises.

The need for a word processor, and a few other bits and pieces of client application software, is of course apparent when you think about the direction MSN is going in. Microsoft devices like the Web Companion, which is now being built by Compaq, are intended to make Internet access a simple and enjoyable experience (hey, don't shout at us, we're only reporting), so they're going to have to do all of the simple, Webby, emaily and writey things that the target newbie/dummy market wants to do, easily, from one place.

This is one of the things MSN EXplorer is supposed to do, providing a simplified UI that allows users one button access to a range of simple tasks and services. All of them run by MSN, natch, but what did you expect, and anyway, doesn't AOL do something pretty similar?

Microsoft's acquisition of a wide range of services and its addition of them to the MSN pile is one way it may hope to outgun AOL, while having some usable apps software bundled could be another. Both Belluzo and the WSJ are currently unclear about where the word processor is going to be developed, but this needn't be rocket science - Microsoft already has a couple of WP programs aimed at those too cheap to stump up for Office, and even bundles one with Windows. It's rubbish, sure, but these people are newbies, right?

For the moment, however, the most significant aspect of the MSN Explorer rollout is probably not its feature set, or its divergence from vanilla IE as the company religion standard browser, but distribution. MSN is ramping up rebate programmes and (officials tell the WSJ "partnership deals with computer manufacturers," which we recall as being something of an issue in recent years, and it seems to be planning an AOL-style 'spam the world with CDs' campaign.

This is not exactly a new strategy, but the resumption of an earlier via other means. AOL's major contribution to the landfill business was initially a response to to the threat of MSN client software being bundled with Windows 95, and to the very real possibility that MSN would end up integrated into Windows consumer versions as the standard, default online service. MSN was originally envisaged as a Microsoft version of the Internet, which of course was Microsoft's core strategic blunder at the time, and one of the reasons the assault on AOL bounced off.

MSN now is espousing the Internet, while narrowing the focus of the client so that it channels users into MSN services, and this is actually rather similar to the initial concept. Microsoft is however stressing that users will get access to whatever sites they want (but we understand you can't change your home page), and even seems to be suggesting that the MSN Explorer client will be distributed to, and usable by, people who're not MSN subscribers. That speaks of a belief that the collection of services offered will be sufficiently handy and interesting to attract a wider range of users - maybe it's misplaced, but don't count on it. Also note that it positions MSN as a competitor to Yahoo as well - hell, why just invade Poland?

One last point worth considering. MSN Explorer currently only runs on Windows, but as it's largely just client software with bells and whistles (and maybe a simple WP program one day) it needn't do; plus, there are lots of versions and sizes of Windows apart from the full-strength ones. Think of what MSN's doing as developing a simple kind of client middleware that would be relatively straightforward to implement on other operating systems. Say AOL's Linux Web appliance is a success, mightn't that be a smart place to start? ®

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