It seemed like a simple assignment: Install and review MSN 8, Microsoft's latest Internet access client. The timing was perfect, too: I was just getting ready to embark on a two-week speaking tour that would bring me to four cities, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Denver, providing plenty of real-world experience with MSN 8's dial-up capabilities and user experience (not to mention my limitations as a public speaker; that's a story for another time). I wasn't expecting much. MSN, after all, has a fairly unexceptional history, from its beginnings as an integrated, Explorer-based component of Windows 95 through to its most recent iteration as an intractable part of Windows XP that few people were very interested in. So I installed MSN 8, loaded up a text file with dial-up numbers for the cities I'd be visiting, and hit the road.

Then something really odd happened. As I used MSN 8, some of its new features began growing on me. What the heck was going on? This product is for newbies, isn't it? Was I really falling for an AOL clone?

I was so concerned, in fact, by my sudden conversion to the MSN 8 way of life that I actually took the time to download a host of MSN 8 marketing and technical materials on the second leg of the road show. Was I missing something? It turns out I was: Unlike previous MSN versions, MSN 8 is highly customizable, works in offline mode--a feature that surprised and delighted me during one flight--and is applicable to a wide range of users, from the utmost beginner to the hard core techie who wants everything set up a certain way. MSN 8, suddenly, is an awesome product for just about anyone interested in accessing the Internet. And that's almost everyone, isn't it? It's also a compelling example of Web services in action. And that, folks, is something I didn't expect to see anytime soon.

MSN: A historical perspective

I'll get to the details in a moment. But as we examine the more recent MSN releases below, understand that I wasn't expecting too much from MSN 8. However, I was very pleasantly surprised. I suspect that many of you will be as well.

MSN 6/MSN Explorer 6.x

MSN Explorer 6.0 (code-named "Mars") was the first modern version of Microsoft's MSN client. Essentially a rebranded version of Internet Explorer with hard-coded links to MSN online properties, a preview version of MSN 6.0 shipped free with Windows Millennium Edition (Me) and was made available for free to other Windows users with a Passport account. The final version shipped in late 2000.

MSN 6 was the first MSN front-end to include a "My Stuff" bar (since renamed in MSN 8 to Dashboard) with links to MSN Calendar, MSN Money stock quotes, MSN Communities, MSN Photos, and online weather. The application was attractive, with pastel colors, but barely configurable: The My Stuff bar was non-moveable and non-sizable, as was the toolbar. But Microsoft was touting MSN Explorer as its first version of the ".NET user experience," suggesting that this front-end would one day form the UI for .NET Web services, an event that is finally occurring this year with MSN 8.

In May 2001, Microsoft released MSN Explorer 6.1 (Figure), which added a retractable My Stuff bar, an embedded media player, email enhancements including spell-checking, a verbal greeting at logon (such as "Good morning, Paul!") and other small improvements.

MSN 7/MSN Explorer 7

Lost in the hoopla of the Windows XP launch on October 25, 2001 was the release of MSN 7 and MSN Explorer 7. The new version featured tighter integration with Microsoft's instant messaging client, MSN Messenger. The product was also accompanied by the launch of MSN Broadband, an extension of Microsoft's high-speed Internet-access initiative, which the company opened up to a variety of DSL providers for better customer choice and coverage. Microsoft offered this access to customers for as little as $39.95 a month and eased DSL installation, monitoring, and updating through its IntelliConnect technologies. By the first half of 2002, MSN Broadband was available in 90 percent of the DSL-capable homes in the United States (though, oddly, I still don't have access to the service here in suburban Boston).

The MSN Explorer 7 user interface (Figure) was very similar to that of its predecessor, with few improvements, though I feel it was marred by its overly purplish color scheme, which even carried over to the MSN home page.

Though an evolutionary improvement over MSN 6, Microsoft's new online strategy quickly came under fire when reports circulated that many of the new MSN Web sites wouldn't load in competing browsers, such as Mozilla and Opera. Microsoft quickly rectified the situation, but the company won few friends when it replied that the problems were caused because the MSN Web sites required a browser with strict adherence to Web standards. Once the laughter subsided, Microsoft quietly changed the sites to allow foreign browsers.

MSN 8

Back in July 2001, Microsoft revealed details of a future MSN client and the ways in which it might integrate further with Windows. At Microsoft's annual financial analysts' meeting, Steven Guggenheimer showed a video of a prototype Windows user interface which included a Start Menu replacement that stayed on-screen, like a dock or shelf. Guggenheimer called this "an open bar" where MSN and other third party developers could plug in access points to services such as instant messaging, calendaring, and so on.

What wasn't clear during the Guggenheimer demonstration was that the technology he was describing would ship well before the next Windows version, called Longhorn, currently expected in 2005. Instead, Microsoft would create the first version of this "open bar"--now called the Dashboard--for MSN 8.

Flash forward to October 25, 2002, and Microsoft, predictably, has a new MSN version available. This time around, however, the rules have changed dramatically. MSN 8 (Figure) is no longer free to non-MSN customers and the client software is no longer called MSN Explorer. Instead, citing the "considerable new value" of its MSN 8 client, Microsoft announced in April 2002 that the product would form the basis of its consumer-oriented .NET services push as previously promised. At its July 2002 MSN 8 announcement, which was accompanied by a Beta 1 release of the software, Microsoft revealed a dramatically improved feature set. MSN 8 would include virus-protection software, advanced and flexible parental controls, junk-mail filtering, new email-management and -creation tools, and access to Microsoft-exclusive online content such as MSN Money Plus, MSN Photo Plus, and MSN Learning & Research Plus. Furthermore, MSN 8 customers can use as many as nine email addresses and synchronize their online personal information management (PIM) data with handheld devices such as Pocket PCs and Palm OS-based handhelds, the company said.

MSN 8 is available to non-MSN subscribers for about $10 a month, making MSN 8 Microsoft's first true subscription software release. MSN dial-up and broadband subscribers, of course, can get the software for free.

Installing MSN 8

MSN 8 can be downloaded from the Web, and Microsoft tells me that existing and new MSN subscribers will get the release via CD-ROM. The CD-ROM version (Figure) includes the software, of course, as well as an MSN tour (Figure) and extra software, such as McAfee VirusScan Online (Figure), which customers get free as part of the subscription. With MSN 8, Microsoft has also changed the ways in which customers can access the service. In the past, non-customers could download MSN Explorer and use the software free of charge, accessing the same MSN Web sites that subscribers did, albeit without the dial-up or broadband connection capabilities. Now, non-MSN customers have to pay for the MSN 8 software, via a $10 monthly charge. MSN still offers dial-up ($22 a month) and broadband ($40 to $55 a month) versions of its software as well, which also include the company's connectivity software.

I've already received complaints from readers about the extra charge for MSN 8, but to be fair, non-America Online (AOL) customers can't use the AOL environment for free either. So in this case, Microsoft is actually moving to scheme that lets non-customers access features that subscribers get, at a low monthly cost. AOL doesn't offer this option.

Installing MSN 8 is a simple affair. The Setup application offers to make MSN 8 your default Web and email application, which will place icons at the top of the XP Start menu, and then provides options to configure the software for Internet connectivity, if you're a new or existing subscriber. I have a broadband connection at home, but because I would be using MSN 8 to connect via dial-up on the road via a laptop, I chose that option (Figure) and set up the connection, agreed to a subscription agreement, and transferred my MSN account to the new version. MSN 8 then installed VirusScan Online and presented me with its logon window (Figure).

In addition to the Internet connectivity software, the MSN 8 client, and VirusScan Online, MSN 8 also includes MSN Messenger 5, the latest version of Microsoft's instant messaging (IM) client. MSN Messenger 5 can be tied to your Windows logon if you wish, as can MSN 8, if desired. So you can logon automatically to your local desktop, .NET Passport via MSN Messenger, and MSN 8 when you turn on the PC.

Using MSN 8

The default MSN 8 user interface (Figure) is similar to previous versions, but with some major improvements. The most obvious is the new Dashboard component, a side-mounted replacement for the My Stuff bar that provides quick links to MSN services. The main MSN window, meanwhile, is basically an Internet Explorer window with a few twists. The IE toolbar has been replaced by a navigation bar that includes links to MSN Web sites and services such as Favorites, Search, Mail, Messenger, Entertainment, and so on. You can't remove any of these links or add your own links, sadly, but you can resize the navigation bar to fit comfortably on any screen resolution, determine whether text labels and/or icons are displayed, and even turn off the navigation bar all together if you wish.

Most navigation bar buttons can be single-clicked in a normal manner (clicking MSN Home loads the MSN home page, naturally). But when you mouse over the navigation buttons, a small down arrow graphic appears (Figure), indicating another button area. When you click this arrow, a menu appears, specific to the choice. The Mail & More button, for example, features a menu with choices for starting a new email message, Inbox, Address Book, Calendar, and other related items (Figure). Incidentally, MSN 8 menus are translucent by default, a curious feature with absolutely zero benefit.

Because MSN 8 uses the IE rendering engine, Web pages display as you would expect and load quickly. One thing I really don't like about MSN 8 is that you can't replace the MSN home page with your own home page. Instead, Microsoft offers you a "My MSN" page you can customize somewhat, or the stock MSN home page. I don't find either acceptable for my needs, but I suspect many average consumers will. Certainly, either page is more useful than AOL's absurd Welcome screen.

The MSN 8 Dashboard is most interesting because it's the first official peek at technology Microsoft will later bundle in Longhorn, the next Windows version. Essentially an XML-based Channel Bar, the Dashboard provides quick access links to local weather, IM "buddies" (a reprehensible term), upcoming appointments (culled from MSN Calendar), stock prices, and the like. Unlike its predecessor, the Dashboard can be customized in numerous ways. First, you can resize it, using three preset widths (Small, Medium and Large), or by simply grabbing the edge of the Dashboard and dragging the mouse left or right. Or you can choose which side the Dashboard appears, left or right. Furthermore, you can detach the Dashboard from MSN and have it appear on the desktop instead (Figure). When you configure the Dashboard in this way, the Dashboard is always available, so you can see and access its services from any application.

Each Dashboard component--or part, using Microsoft terminology--can optionally display a flyout window (Figure) which lets you see more detailed information about the currently selected item, or rearrange that item, up or down, visually, within the Dashboard. Furthermore, when you click your name at the top of the Dashboard, you receive a menu with other choices related to Dashboard management (Figure).

Using MSN 8 email

MSN email had always been based on Hotmail Web-based email technology. In the past, this was an issue because there was no way to access your email when offline, unless you resorted to an external email application such as Outlook Express. However, Outlook Express isn't as simple or attractive as Microsoft's Web-based MSN email, so users had to make a tradeoff, based on their needs.

In MSN, this is no longer the case. Now, you can access MSN mail through the attractive Web-based interface (Figure) as before, but it's also available, astonishingly, when offline. The first time I witnessed this, I was sure there was some kind of caching chicanery going on, but in fact, Microsoft has performed an interesting bit of technological integration. Under the hood, MSN email is actually using Outlook Express technology to manage your email and address book (Figure) locally, but it's presented inside the MSN shell as if it were Web based (Figure). Messages are still stored on the Hotmail server by default, however, but cached locally for offline use. It's the best of both worlds, and the sheer simplicity and attractiveness of MSN 8 email has me hooked. It's an excellent solution, well implemented and beautifully designed.

MSN 8 email also features a new server-based Junk Mail Protection feature (Figure) that uses heuristic technologies from Microsoft Research to filter mail accurately based on content. It appears to work pretty well, but like any junk mail feature, it needs to be trained a bit.

Calendar

Like the email and address book, MSN Calendar is now available offline (Figure) and it's another visually stunning piece of work. MSN Calendar sports Day, Week, and Month views as before, as well as a new Tasks view similar to the Tasks module in Microsoft Outlook. You can create appointments and tasks with email reminders or MSN Alerts, adorn day displays and appointments with category graphics (Figure) or colors, and even synchronize your Personal Information Management (PIM) data with a Palm OS or Pocket PC-based device.

Individual appointments (Figure) carry over the same visual design as the wider Calendar. One interesting feature is the Invite Others tab, which lets you invite people in your address book to appointments in your calendar.

And, as you might expect, if you enter appointments or tasks while offline, they synchronize with MSN's servers when you go online. Then, you can access MSN Calendar from any Web browser and view and edit your PIM data. Good stuff.

MSN Messenger 5

Microsoft's instant messaging client, MSN Messenger, has yet to take the world by storm, thanks to AOL's illegal lock on that market. But Messenger is a great IM application, and one that I actually use daily. In the new version, MSN Messenger 5, Microsoft has added a few interesting new features. By default, a new MSN Today window opens when Messenger runs, showing you a very AOL-esque view of what's happening today on the Web. Also, a new Shared Browsing feature lets you initiate a shared browsing session with people you are chatting online with.

Also, for XP users, it's now possible to run both MSN Messenger 5 and Windows Messenger simultaneously. This allows you to logon to two different Passport accounts simultaneously, which can be useful. Or, if you're bored, you can chat with yourself, I suppose.

Plus services

In addition to its links to standard MSN content such as MSN Entertainment and MSN eShop, MSN 8 includes links to so-called MSN Plus services such as MSN Money Plus (Figure), MSN Photos Plus (Figure), and MSN Learning & Research Plus (Figure). These services integrate with the Dashboard, MSN Messenger, and local applications where appropriate, providing extra value.

MSN Money Plus works with Microsoft Money to help you track your bank and investment balances, bills, stock prices, and other money-related tasks. MSN Photos Plus works with a bundled copy of Microsoft Picture It! Express to provide a way to capture, edit, and share digital photos online. And MSN Learning & Research Plus integrates with Microsoft Encarta to provide a constantly updated 60,000 article encyclopedia with multimedia features, a thesaurus, and dictionary. Each of these Plus services is actually pretty cool, especially MSN Photos Plus, which includes 100 MB of dedicated online photo storage (in addition to the 30 MB of MSN community storage MSN 8 users receive).

Security and privacy

Security and privacy have been extensively overhauled in MSN 8. Previously, MSN relied largely on the parental controls that were found in Internet Explorer, which wasn't particularly compelling. This time around, however, MSN 8 includes usable and useful parental controls, as well as other security-related features such as anti-virus protection.

Parental Controls

In MSN 8, Microsoft allows you to create up to eight sub-accounts, which the company figures will normally be used for family members. When you create a sub-account, you can specify whether that person is a child, and if so, how the account is limited. For example, you can use MSN Web filtering technology to specify which types of sites your children can and cannot access, based on over 50 content categories. You can even block individual Web pages or sections of Web pages, if desired.

But the parental controls are far richer. In addition to Web site filtering, you can specify which contacts your children can and cannot communicate with MSN Messenger, prevent children from downloading files, and apply age-specific filters on search results and encyclopedia entries. Best of all, Microsoft has implemented a cool Kids Request Line feature that lets your children electronically negotiate with you when they attempt to access online content denied by MSN filters If you're online at the time, MSN will generate an instant message request. If not, an email will be sent.

Another useful feature is the weekly history report, which shows your children's online activities. This lets you see how long they've been online, which sites they've visited, which blocked sites and contacts they attempted to visit, and any pending requests.

I didn't actually spend much time evaluating the parental controls in MSN 8, as my children are still too young to be online alone, but my cursory review of these features suggests they're quiet valuable. If you're a parent, MSN 8's parental controls features are worth investigating.

Anti-virus tools

Microsoft ships MSN 8 with a free version of McAfee's VirusScan Online anti-virus tool, which is just about as invasive (and necessary) as any other AV application. VirusScan Online includes the McAfee Security Center, which constantly checks for new virus definitions and other upgrades.

Moving to MSN 8

Even with its steady improvements over the years, MSN remains a distant second to America Online (AOL), the dominant online service. However, Microsoft understands that one of the things it must do well in order to gain ground on AOL is make it easy for AOL's customers to move to MSN. That means providing seamless and simple tools for porting AOL address books, calendars, IM contacts, and email to MSN. Predictably, these tools are provided in MSN 8.

But Microsoft also includes other niceties for ex-AOLers. MSN 8 includes a dedicated AOL Help file--accessible from the MSN menu bar--that helps AOL users get up-to-speed with their new online service. And many AOL keywords work in MSN 8 as well.

Importing data from other applications

A smaller market of people will move to MSN from other online services. For these users, MSN includes tools to convert email and address book data from Outlook Express, convert bookmarks from other browsers, and so on. Curiously, MSN 8 doesn't include an automated way to convert Outlook PST files to MSN 8, though service's non-MSN 8-based sites include instructions. If you need help with this feature, contact me and I'll walk you through the convoluted steps you must take.

Conclusions

After two weeks on the road, I ended up installing MSN 8 on my main desktop as well, primarily because I missed the quick access links in the MSN 8 Dashboard. But the product's offline access to email, address book, and calendar has me intrigued as well, and I'm currently evaluating whether this functionality can replace Outlook as my primary PIM and email application. I'm not sure that I can give MSN 8 a stronger recommendation: I really didn't expect much, but came away tremendously impressed.

If you're still using AOL for some reason, get a life. MSN 8 is much nicer, and is cheaper. If you're using a different dial-up or broadband ISP and MSN is available in your area, give MSN 8 a look. And if the email, address book and calendaring features sound interesting, check out the $10 monthly version of MSN 8, as I've recommended to my wife, a long-time dedicated Hotmail user (I know, I know). MSN has finally evolved beyond its hand-holding past into a valuable and attractive tool that makes sense for a wide range of users. Chances are, you're one of them. Give it a shot. You might come away as impressed as I did.