Playing for the consumer market space, Microsoft has fired a shot into the belly of AOL, prepping a new release of its Internet software. MSN 8 is set to include expanded parental controls, revamped communications, better browsing and more personalization. Redmond has marshaled bits and pieces of its software assets as well as some partners in a bid to draw more users away from rival AOL -- just in time for the fall holiday shopping season.
Being family friendly has been a longstanding strength of America Online. Parental controls featured prominently in advertising space entice users to stick with the self-proclaimed "number one" Internet provider.
But Microsofts Bob Visse sees cracks in the core of his adversarys much ballyhooed filtering technology, calling their efforts too rigid.
AOL relies on age-based filters. Microsoft is going past age -- by category. For instance, if parents do not want children to learn about religion online they can ban secular content. Other sites are sifted out on a URL basis. Music, searchable keywords, and Encarta encyclopedia content are also included in a top-down approach. Filters are provided by an undisclosed third party.
Children can request parents to lift the ban on taboo sites via e-mail or through what is dubbed "over the shoulder approval" with a username and password. Visse remarked that children can "put it in writing" to make their case in a "kid request line."
Parents may also limit their childrens downloads, e-mail and instant messaging contacts.
Reports detailing browsing and chat history allow parents to monitor duration of chats as well as content to which children are exposed. These reports are presented on a default weekly basis but dynamically change if the history is more active.
Other safety measures include a firewall developed in house for all compatible Windows OSs and a self-updating antivirus solution provided by McAfee. As is the case with other Explorer features, this provides a basic level of protection that can be increased by paying a subscription fee.
MSN Mail has been the focus of much attention in this release. Most significantly, Outlook Expresss code base will now run on the hotmail backend. Fonts, colors and stationery dress up e-mail messages. There are no voicemail aspects to this release although the company will continue to support MSN mobile technologies.
New spam filters sort through e-mails for specific words and phrases. When asked if legitimate and personal mail -- involving mortgages or job offers -- could be lost in the process, Microsoft pointed out that all suspect mail is place in a browseable junk mail folder.
Visse downplayed MSN Messenger 5.0s role. While recent builds leaked to the web have offered a glimpse into the product, eWEEK has learned more specific details. Users will be able to dock chat sessions with their best buddies to the desktop without having the full messenger open all the time.
The primary area of focus for this release was the user interface. An overhauled interface is more streamlined, combining 3-D graphics with translucent drop-down menus. In developing this interface, Microsoft studied more than 100 families and their interactions with MSN to pinpoint their frustrations.
A new feature introduced in this build is Dashboard. Here such diverse items as favorite photos, online news, stocks, calendar appointments and bill payments can be displayed as a bar in Explorer or docked on the Windows desktop. The Explorer bar, ever present in version 7.0, can now be collapsed to consolidate desktop real estate.
A download manager, print preview and client-based calendar have also surfaced.
Attempting to fire a salvo at the richness of AOLs client, Microsoft has pooled resources ranging from Picture It! to Money to Encarta. Essential functions of Picture It! and Money are included to improve photo editing and financial management. A rudimentary subscription to Encarta is thrown into the mix, with the full version available -- for a price.
Microsoft claims that many features take full advantage of broadband (carrying over existing technologies), but this release does not go as far as AOL 8, which has targeted high speed connections as a focal point.
A select group of core Microsoft beta testers will soon begin to rake MSN 8 -- what Microsoft calls a solution to key frustrations of Internet users -- with a final release slated for fall 2002.
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