’bout freakin’ time they got around to it – upgrading MSN Chat I mean. How do I figure that? Well, MSN, version 8, shipped last week. Wait, isn’t MSN Chat just a web site? Sure, but MSN is going through a period of changes, some subtle, some grand. Here’s my take on MSN, and where Microsoft is planning to take it in the future.
A couple of years ago, when code names like Hailstorm (now on a shelf) and Passport SDK were all over the Geek magazines, MS made a quiet disclosure that it believed that there would be money to be made in the services game. Having been in the business of subscription services for a while now, here it is in layman’s terms: give away the software and change for the content. Take AOL as an example – you can copy and distribute the software to whomever you want (proven that I’ve seen the signup CD at places like CVS) but without a valid subscription in their databases, you can’t do a damned thing with that CD… well, I use them as coasters so they do have some use, but still, as software they are useless without a subscription based accounts. Neat business model, actually because there’s no loss of profit to software piracy.
So, given that MS had announced that they planned to make money on content, it should come as no surprise that they started to acquire content companies – this was also required from a posturing stance, as AOL (now with TimeWarner) had access to the content of CNN, Time, and other well known feed. Microsoft picked up ESPN, MSNBC News, and a few others, if you go to the MSN.com home page, you’ll see what’s available. Did I say home page? Yes. See, the subtle thing of MSN today is that it’s two different products: MSN the ISP, now in the AOL-killer version 8, and MSN the web pages which are accessible from any web browser. This is what makes me think that I know where they’re going:
MSN 8, the ISP model, is available in dial-up or broadband forms. I don’t know the pricing, because I don’t have them, but the dial-up model is the same as AOL: get a phone line and point your modem to it. The broadband is a little more complicated, as they charge you for the service (the browser, filters, etc.) and add that on top of the local DSL/cable carrier. I pay $49/month for DSL to SBC; if I had MSN Broadband, I would pay $49 + the MSN charge. See, MSN 8 is a whole software application now, so Microsoft believes that people like me – with existing broadband coverage – will want the application with it’s AOL-like experience. In fact, AOL has been selling their dial-up accounts with a “you get a dial-up line, but you can get into us with broadband too” for years. Yes, years – I used the Internet to get into AOL in 1996 – so this is no new idea. Anyway, MSN 8 is a collection of software built on IE and meant to be a “single” point of access of the Internet for users. You use it for browsing the web, for getting mail from Hotmail, tracking stocks in MSN Money, instant messaging via MSN-IM, chat via MSN Chat, and even includes things like a download manager, parental controls, and a spam filter.
MSN.com, is the provider of most of these services. If you go to MSN.com, you’ll find all of these services via IE (or any other PC-based web browser) and you can use them all free of charge. Hotmail has been available for years, MSN Money is tied to CNBC for stocks, MSN-IM can be downloaded (or is included with Windows XP), and MSN Chat is available for IE. Free? Yep. All of it. And mostly upgraded over the last couple of weeks. People in the chat rooms have been bitching about it too – don’t like the new colors or the icons. Well, given that the icons have been in MSN-IM for months, they aren’t new and if anything, they show what MS is doing next: unification. MS has always preached that the more things look and act alike, between applications, the more people will use them because they will be more intuitive. This is a motto of Apple, actually, but the fact is it works. So if the applications are merging a bit, it’s for a reason. Let’s review what we know:
- Microsoft has said they are looking to make money on content and subscription based services
- Microsoft has recently stepped up their ISP plan with MSN 8
- MSN 8 is a software application for users of their ISP services that offers services, rather than just an ISP
- MSN.com supplies services for MSN 8 and for Internet users
- MSN.com is available for free
See a trend? Sure as shit that I do. If MSN.com is free and some people are paying for it via MSN 8 and Microsoft wants to make money on the MSN.com content, they will pull that last bullet point off. MSN.com will become available for MSN 8 users only; you want that content, you need to pay for it. Will you have to use MSN 8 dial up lines to get it? No, but you will need an MSN account. Think Hotmail will be free for much longer? MSN Money stock info? MSN Chat? All charged for – free to MSN subscribers, but you gotta pay for MSN subscriptions. It’s logical and in my opinion inevitable.
The problem is, it’s stupid. At least here in America and since the US makes up the bulk of PC-based Internet users world-wide, it’s really stupid. See, Americans, as a rule, don’t pay for services and never for games. We typically resent paying for software too, but at least there you usually get a box to take home – we don’t like to pay for services. TalkCity chat started as free, then went to a $1/month charge and then nearly disappeared. Why does 1/4 of America not have cable? “Free reception is good enough for me!” This is also why that satellite music thingy hasn’t taken off yet and while people resent TiVo – there’s a monthly charge for information you can get for free elsewhere. Remember the “charge by view” Divx debacle? Ask Circuit City about that – they can tell, better than anyone, you that Americans don’t like to “buy” a DVD that has restrictions on its viewing. We don’t like to pay for services, especially over the Internet. It’s been the on going trend for the last six years and I don’t see how even Microsoft can change that.
As for the chatters complaining about the new software, my comment to them was simple: “Shut up – you’re getting what you paid for… paying for MSN 8 got you an ISP account, but the Chat is free!”