You may have heard of blogs (or "Web logs"), a new name for something that's existed since the dawn of the Web: Personal Web sites, updated regularly, containing any kind of information imaginable. Bloggers--i.e. those who maintain blogs--might argue, however, that blogs are different in some ways from personal Web sites. For example, many blogs are dedicated to a certain topic, like politics, technology, or a love of cats. Those blogs are generally as uninteresting as they are innumerable. What's really interesting about some blogs--and about the capabilities in Microsoft's free new blog service, MSN Spaces--is the same thing that's been interesting about the Web since its inception. Blogs provide people with a way to publish information on the Internet at little or no cost, and with little or no technical expertise. In a nutshell, blogs, like any personal Web site, are about giving power to the people.

So what makes a blog different from a traditional personal Web site?

Regardless of the blog service you use, blogs are differentiated from previous generation personal Web sites in a few ways. First, most bloggers don't muddle around with HTML when creating their sites, but rather use blog software or services that create the HTML for them; text is entered into a form and then published on the Internet automatically. (This particular capability is fascinating to me because the first bloggers were, by and large, overly technical geeks; today, most bloggers are normal people--housewives, fathers, singers, poets, whatever--who are drawn to the simplicity of blogging software and services because HTML is too complicated to learn.)

Most blogs are syndicated. Using technology such as Real Simple Syndication (RSS), an XML-based solution that is woefully uninteresting, it's possible to automatically publish information from a blog to non-Web content aggregators, such as email clients and standalone applications. In this way, people can enjoy any updated content from their favorite blogs. That is, they don't have to manually navigate to each site to see whether it's been updated. The beauty of syndication is that readers will be automatically alerted when changes are made. Content syndication is so useful, in fact, that Microsoft's next Windows operating system, Longhorn (see my preview), will have integrated RSS syndication functionality. And Apple has built syndication capabilities into its Safari Web browser in Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" (see my review).

Many blogs consist solely of links to content that was generated elsewhere. These blogs are like a peek at the psyche of the blogger, because they publish which sites they're viewing themselves. Many Web sites that predated the blog craze are, thus, actually blogs in structure and form. Tech enthusiast sites like ActiveWin and Neowin are good examples of this kind of blog (though they are obviously not personal Web sites per se, but are in fact much larger entities).

Many blogs also include "talkback," feedback, or "forum"-type interactive elements that allow blog readers to post their own comments and communicate with the blogger and other readers. Again, ActiveWin and Neowin excel at this functionality, and have fostered communities of users who frequent the sites to discover what's new and then chat about it. But even individuals can utilize this kind of functionality in blogging services to create a relationship with their readers.

Many blogs are updated quite frequently, throughout the day, and not just every once in a while (though this isn't a requirement of course). In 1997, I started a personal Web site for my family that is updated with new photos after trips, birthdays, or other significant events. This site is updated every several days at most, which is typical for many personal Web sites. But I also have a non-Windows technology blog called Internet Nexus that is updated regularly each day. In this way, Internet Nexus is a more typical blog, and has been operated as a blog since 2001. (I use a service called Blogger to publish the Nexus, incidentally.)

Many blogs accept advertising, typically through Google Ad Words or a similar scheme, as a way to make small amounts of money for providing other people with entertainment or service. In this way, many blogs are the virtual equivalent of the street musicians you see in big US cities. The more popular the blog, the bigger the potential for ad revenue.

None of this matters

As was the case with PCs and the Internet, what once belonged solely to the geeks now belongs to the general populace and, as a result, is now much more compelling as well. Blogs may have started off as a soap box for weird geeky people to argue the merits of their favorite technologies or, in the worst examples, to create bizarre self-referential back-patting circles where a group of tech buddies simply links to each other and brags about who they know. But today, blog software and services have improved to the point where normal people can use them and create their own blogs. And the "blogosphere" (ugh)--nay, the entire Web--will never be the same. Where once there was just tedium and technology, now we have the teeming masses. And they got something to say, if you'll excuse The Monkees reference.

As previously noted, Microsoft's recently released blogging solution is called MSN Spaces. And as you might expect from a product coming out of MSN, which is Microsoft's consumer-oriented Web services division, MSN Spaces doesn't cater to the niche market of technical bloggers at all. Instead, MSN Spaces targets consumers. Normal people. The norms. As such, it ultimately prove much further-reaching than most anything else related to RSS or XML, or, heaven forbid, earlier techie-focused blogging solutions like Moveable Type or Radio Userland. And it includes the kinds of features typical human beings will want, with ways to post photos, an online journal (what most people think of as a "blog"), and lists of various types. Like most MSN services, MSN Spaces is bright, colorful, fully customizable, and well-designed. It also integrates with other MSN properties, such as MSN Music (see my review). But it's also a 1.0 product, so there are a few gaps and missing features. But give the busy folks at MSN credit: Out of the gate, MSN Spaces is already a force to be reckoned with. And unlike many blogging solutions, it's free yet offers high-end publishing features. Let's take a look.

What is MSN Spaces?

MSN Spaces is a free blogging service that debuted in beta form in December 2004. In the four months since then, the service has seen phenomenal success: According to Microsoft, over 4.5 million consumers have started personal Spaces since the public beta began. And Larry Grothaus, the Lead Product Manager for MSN Marketing, told me that 170,000 Spaces are updated daily. If we look at statistics for other blogging services, that means that MSN Spaces has about 1 million active users. By any metric, MSN Spaces, out of the gate, is therefore already the number two or three blog solution worldwide. Not too shabby.

MSN Spaces provides most of the services that typify blogs, as noted above. That is, Spaces provides a simplified, non-HTML way to post text entries online, perfect for beginners. It provides syndication services, allowing content from personal Spaces to be subscribe to from news aggregators and other RSS-compatible applications and services. It excels at creating lists of items, perfect for a blogroll or similar list of links. And it allows others to post comments to Spaces. MSN Spaces, however, does not let you ad your own advertising. Instead, MSN sells advertising space as a way to make money on this otherwise free service. You knew there had to be a catch, right?

MSN Spaces also goes beyond stock blogging features and adds functionality that I think many casual users and consumers will find to be exciting. It offers a highly customizable user interface, albeit one that exists clearly within the MSN site "style." It includes excellent photo uploading and slideshow features. It integrates with MSN Music to display lists of your favorite songs, and with MSN Messenger so that you'll be notified when your contacts update their own Spaces. And in a nice nod to power users, it even lets you post blog entries via mobile phone or email.

In the following sections, we'll examine these features and see how MSN Spaces compares with Blogger, the blog service with which I'm most experienced. (I've been using Blogger since 2001.)

Posting text

Though some of the advances in MSN Spaces may lead to a change in the way that people perceive blogs, today most blogs consist largely of text posts. The MSN Spaces Edit Blog Entry page (Figure) is, thus, the portion of Spaces that most users will interact with. Compared to the similar page at Blogger (Figure), the Spaces version offers far more features and functionality. For example, while both Spaces and Blogger offer standard text formatting controls (bold, italics and so on), hyperlink insertion, and other tools, only Spaces offers underlining, indents, and emoticons (a debatable option). On the flipside, Blogger offers a few features Spaces doesn't, such as spell checking and block quote insertion, which is roughly an HTML version of text justification. (I happen to use block quotes extensively in my own blog.)

Because of its background as a pre-Spaces blog tool, Blogger offers two modes for updating a blog. The first, Edit HTML, lets you get down and dirty and work with pure HTML if you'd like. The second, Compose, is closer to what Spaces offers. Spaces doesn't offer a way to edit HTML.

One oddity: The Spaces Add or edit a link dialog, which appears when you click the Insert Link button, separates the HTTP prefix (http://) from the rest of the URL for some reason. This might seem like a huge mistake, because browsers include the HTTP prefix information in their address bars. So if you copy and paste a URL from a Web browser into this form, you'd expect to get a poorly formed URL (like http://http://myaddress.com) if you're not careful. (Figure) As it turns out, Spaces automatically corrects this.

Categories is one killer feature that Spaces offers that Blogger does not. The Spaces Category drop down is pre-filled with a wide assortment of stock categories (Books, Computers and Internet, Entertainment, and so on), but you can also add your own, which is fantastic. So let's say you have a blog about wine. You may want to make categories such as "Pinot Noir," "Cabernet," and so on. I'm sore that Blogger doesn't offer this feature.

Spaces also offers a far superior picture uploading tool to that in Blogger. In Spaces, photos are uploading using a tool that rivals Explorer in Windows and accesses you?re your local and online photos (Figure). Blogger's picture uploading dialog is pretty uninspiring (Figure). On the other hand, you can use it to upload any kind of file, which can be convenient.

Overall, the blog posting experience in Spaces is quite positive, unless of course you wish to hand code HTML. This limitation makes sense when you consider the wider market MSN is pursuing, however. Blogger remains a better tool for more technically sophisticated blog posters.

Posting photo albums

If you're interested in posting massive amounts of photos which can be organized into albums and displayed via the Web in nicely-made slideshows, MSN Spaces is the tool for you. The photo album creation and photo uploading tools are quite nice (Figure), with the results being propagated into your Space in two different ways. First, your latest photo album is displayed by default in a small Photo album part on your Space's home page (Figure) by default (see the section on customizing for details). Second, the Photos page of each Space displays a larger, slideshow-type view of each photo album you upload (Figure). And if you mouse over the area below the currently-displayed photo, you'll get a nice toolbar that helps the viewer control the display (Figure). Very nice! This is one of Spaces best features, in my opinion.

Blogger doesn't offer any functionality like this at all. If you'd like to display photos from a Blogger-powered blog, you'll need to figure that out yourself.

Posting from email and cell phone

Spaces lets you create blog postings from email or even your cell phone, which might prove to be an interesting feature. Both features are disabled by default, however. To enable email publishing, you visit the E-mail Publishing section of the Spaces Settings tool. Posts sent via email can be configured to publish immediately or be saved as drafts that you need to OK via the Web first. You can also publish posts from a mobile device such as a cell phone. I didn't test this functionality, which seems to be best suited for power users and not the casual blogger. Google's Blogger service offers similar functionality.

Making lists ... checking them twice

One area in which MSN Spaces stands out from Blogger is its support for automatically generating lists. If you look at the Spaces user interface, you'll see that it is broken up into individual sections, which I think of as "parts," as in Web parts. MSN actually calls these sections modules, and by default it supplies a number of modules, such as Profile (personal information), Archives (automatic lists of previous posts by month), Blog (text entries), Photo album, and so on. There are also four list modules, however. Their purpose, not surprisingly, is to help you create and maintain lists.

What sorts of things might you want to list? Many people will be interested in listing the books they're reading, the other blogs they like to visit, the music they listen to, or whatever. These are all supported natively by Spaces. But you can also create your own custom lists. For example, you might want to create a list of recipes or whatever. It's up to you.

To create a list, click the Customize option and then pull down the Modules drop-down list. There are four list types: Music list, Custom list, Blog list, and Book list. (There are also two automatically generated lists, New spaces and Updated spaces, which MSN provides.) The Custom list lets you create a generic list that you can then rename and add items to. Each item can optionally have a URL and description.

To my knowledge, Blogger doesn't offer anything like this feature.

Customizing your Space

MSN Spaces offers various personalization options. First, you can modify the layout of your Space by dragging and dropping modules (Figure). This feature is intuitive and nicely implemented. You can also apply various themes to your Space, using the Themes drop-down item (Figure). Most of the themes are decent, but all fall neatly within the MSN site style, so it will always be obvious that your Space is part of MSN, and not an individual creation. Still, the ability to theme your Space is welcome. Hopefully, more themes will become available in the near future. By comparison, Blogger offers a nice selection of themes, but has nothing in the way of Spaces' layout functionality.

One interesting customization feature concerns which readers can view your Space. This is controlled through the Permissions section of the Spaces Settings page. There are three options: Public (anyone can view your Space), Messenger (only your MSN Messenger contacts can view your Space), and Private (only people you select from your MSN Hotmail address book can view your space). This feature is easily configured and will probably be a welcome choice for many users. Blogger doesn't offer any way to restrict readers.

Getting heard and interacting with your audience

Just being able to easily publish information on the Web is a huge capability. But with the admittedly niche-like but still interesting rise in RSS syndication clients recently, it's important to offer readers other ways to access the content you create. Predictably, MSN Spaces does offer RSS 2.0 syndication support. However, you can only enable this feature if you set your Space's permission level to Public. Blogger offers more advanced syndication options: You can specify RSS or Atom site feed publishing and whether to publish short or full post descriptions. That makes sense: Syndication is a power user option, and Blogger is more appropriate for experienced users.

And MSN Spaces, like Blogger, offers you the ability to let readers leave comments to blog posts. This feature will let you establish a relationship with your readers: Rather than have correspondence with readers occur solely via email, which is a private medium, people can post comments directly to your Space, interacting with both you and other readers. Commenting is a simple toggle: It's either on or off. Blogger, meanwhile, offers more configurable commenting.

Integration with other MSN services

Love it or hate it, Microsoft is all about integration and MSN has been on a tear lately trying to figure out ways to link all of its Web-based services wherever appropriate. The results are somewhat mind-boggling: All of the company's recent MSN services offer a bewildering array of cross-service integration. MSN Spaces, predictably, is no different.

If you're an MSN Messenger user, for example, MSN Messenger 7.0 (see my review) displays Gleams whenever one of your contacts updates their Space (Figure). Also, the new Contact Card feature in MSN Messenger 7.0 provides a quick link to updated Spaces blogs and photo albums in an attractive manner (Figure).

Users of the new MSN Toolbar Suite 2.0 beta (see my preview) will see an MSN Spaces button on the toolbar in IE and Explorer windows (Figure). The button includes a drop-down with an option, Blog It on My Space, which auto-launches the Edit Blog Entry page when you visit a Web site that has information you'd like to include in a blog posting. If you install the Google Toolbar 3 beta, you'll get a similar button, Blog This!, for Blogger.

Music lovers will find the Music lists option interesting, which predictably integrates with MSN Music (see my review). When you add a music list, you can auto-fill it with such things as a playlist from Windows Media Player (Figure), or you can create your own manually. You add songs to a manually-created list, um, manually. So it's really the same thing as any other custom list, except of course that it will be listed in the Music Lists module on your Space.

While I'm naturally suspicious of integration in general, what MSN is doing here makes sense. By creating a cohesively connected suite of services, most of which are available for free, or in free versions, to consumers, MSN is establishing itself as an end-to-end solution for people wishing to get the most out of the Web. It's about brand building: If you have a positive experience with MSN Messenger, perhaps, you might be more willing to give MSN Spaces a shot. Or buy a song or two from MSN Music.

The Good, the Bad, and the Showstoppers

As a first shot at creating a complete blogging solution, MSN Spaces is an admirable attempt, and will surely find a huge audience among those that MSN expects to attract. However, Spaces isn't perfect, and it lags other services in a few key areas, especially for those who want more than basic services. To my mind, three of these limitations are particularly problematic.

First, you cannot publish a Space away from MSN's servers. For example, you can't establish your own domain (http://www.mygreatspace.com or whatever) and provide readers with a simpler way to find you on the Web. Until MSN offers this functionality, Spaces is a nonstarter for me. I'd consider using it otherwise. Note however that this will likely not be a huge issue for most users: I understand that domain name publishing is a fairly advanced feature.

Too, Spaces doesn't offer any way for users to create custom themes. The selection of themes that MSN supplies is nice, but I'd like to do my own thing. In the hermetically sealed MSN environment, this is not currently possible. Maybe in the next revision?

Finally, there's no way to increase your MSN Spaces storage capacity, though I'd be surprised to discover that MSN wasn't already planning to implement this feature. Currently, MSN offers Spaces users 30 MB of storage for free, which the company says is big enough to store about 750 photos (pictures uploaded to MSN Spaces are resized to fit on a typical Web page). That's great, but many MSN customers are already paying the company for MSN Premium or Hotmail Extra Storage. MSN should offer an Extra Storage feature for Space and, while they're at it, let users store full-sized photos optionally. There's no reason MSN Spaces can't be used for a variety of data storage needs, at a price. Certainly, there's a market for this kind of functionality.

Availability and pricing

MSN Spaces is now available, though you must establish a Passport account (such as when you create a Hotmail email address) to access the service. MSN Spaces is free, and there are currently no paid or subscription versions of the service available.

Conclusions

MSN Spaces is a fantastic Web publishing tool for beginners. If you're already using a more advanced tool such as Blogger, it's unlikely that you'll be swayed by the niceties in MSN Spaces. But if that's so, MSN Spaces wasn't designed for you anyway. If you're among the 99 percent of the population who doesn't know HTML from RSS and frankly couldn't care less about the distinction, and you're interested in communicating with others online, MSN Spaces is certainly worth a try. Highly recommended.