Now, It’s the Butterfly’s Turn

NEW YORK — After sharing “Battle of the 8.0’s” headlines with archrival AOL for weeks, Microsoft’s turn in the spotlight arrived Thursday as the software giant unleashed its ISP/portal software, MSN 8.0.

Under an 11,000-square-foot air-compressed dome in Central Park’s Wollman Rick, Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates did more than demonstrate the new MSN 8.0 features. He also took the wraps off an ISP/content arrangement with The Walt Disney Company .

Solid news announcements inside splashy media events featuring celebrities and entertainers is the fashion nowadays with big product launches. Microsoft’s event was right in step with a “surprise” guest, a performance by rocker Lenny Kravitz and actress Marilu Henner.

Disney’s chairman and chief executive, Michael Eisner, joined Gates on stage to announce that Disney would offer dial-up Internet access through a partnership with MSN. The new service is to feature Disney content and MSN 8.0’s much-touted parental controls, along with MSN 8.0 features such as “age-appropriate” searches, personalized start pages, and spam filters.

“This is based on Disney’s feedback,” Gates said. “I think we’re going to gain a lot of share here” with the new MSN/Disney co-branded deal.

Given the solid word-of-mouth and reviews for MSN 8.0 so far, Microsoft may have reason to hope about narrowing the subscriber gap between AOL’s 35 million subscribers and its own second place 9 million customers.

Eisner said Disney was “looking for a family-safe environment” in which “to take Disney to the next level” with content distribution. He said MSN’s advanced parental controls were enhancements that helped make the partnership happen.

The Disney ISP service, which puts the entertainment, media and theme park giant into the role of playing virtual ISP (VISP), features start-pages for kids as well as a separate start page for adults with the MSN 8 home page and its personalization features.

In addition to promoting Disney content, the Disney on MSN service will pipe in “family-friendly” MSN 8.0 features, such as the ability to block inappropriate Web sites from their kids’ surfing experience — and easy ways to temporarily “lift” those blocks with a “Kids Request Line.”

The feature lets kids request permission from their parents via email to access Web pages, email addresses or MSN Messenger accounts they don’t already have permission to use. Parents can signal their approval on the spot, without having to go back and reset their restrictions.

“Disney on MSN” subscribers also will receive a free subscription to Disney’s Blast, a premium online content service for kids that provides nearly 100 educational and entertainment features, and a free subscription to Disney Adventures magazine, the companies said.

The new service will be managed by Walt Disney’s Internet Group (DIG), and is available beginning on Thursday, for $21.95 per month, the company said.

Me Too: No Pop-Ups!

Microsoft also matched AOL’s recent announcement about refusing pop-up advertising and announced that it, too, would no longer accept the ad format.

“Historically, the pop up has not been an advertising format that we have offered in a significant way in MSN,” said Rich Bray, vice president, MSN U.S. “We made the decision to completely get rid of pop-ups and ‘leave-behinds’ [or pop-unders], which are two ad types our customers found to be somewhat of an annoyance, to create as rich an environment as possible.”

MSN also said that teaming with Disney would boost its appeal to certain segments of advertisers.

“As we continue to build up the overall family-friendliness of MSN 8, the features will increase our ability to target families with teenage kids and young kids, who are spending time online,” he said. “In our minds, it’s a great combination of all the great capabilities that Disney brings from a content, brand and services perspective.”

Software is the Star

While AOL’s recent launch of its new 8.0 ISP service was about “self-expression” and building on “community,” the MSN 8.0 launch was about the “power of software,” as Gates put it during his remarks.

“We are not a media company, so this partnership approach really gives us the best approach,” he said of the Disney arrangement.

Speaking before a phalanx of photographers snapping away, Gates repeatedly focused on the star of the production: the advanced software in the new product, which powered features such as a spam filter that increases in effectiveness as the user builds a list of unwanted email. It also was on display in MSN 8.0’s ability to offer more detailed personalization of users’ start pages, and in a voice greetings that welcomes users by name as they log in.

During the spam filtering demonstration, Gates scored some laughs as he displayed some of the more ironic spam he had received. One carried the subject line: Get Out of Debt Today!

“I’m not sure they had me profiled quite properly,” Gates said.

Another email spam he displayed that drew big laughs carried the subject line: “Are You Frustrated About Legal Concerns? Get protection from top law firms for just pennies a day!”

Software also starred in MSN’s new Parental Control features, which offer parents detailed activity reports on their children’s online sessions, including which blocked sites they tried to visit, and how often they surfed the Web and used instant messaging.

“This was a big area for us, and another breakthrough,” Gates said of the feature, which the company pointed out goes a couple of steps beyond AOL’s Parent Control by letting parents temporarily remove the “gates” on blocked sites for their kids via the “Kids Request Line.”

Other new features of MSN 8.0 include:

  • Redesigned email, with features of Outlook Express and software to help users add photos to text, automatically compress messages so they download faster, and create email photo albums;
  • Personalization tools in the redesigned browser that let users one-click their way to building their own “welcome” pages including customized stock, local news, and weather information.
  • A “Dashboard” navigation bar that sits an a user’s desktop (like AOL’s Companion), where personalized information is collected, including signals of new email, Instant Messages, and upcoming calendar appointments;
  • An automatic email virus protection program that automatically checks messages and attachments and is regularly updated with information on the latest virus threats circulating on the Internet;
  • The TrueSwitch program that helps other ISP subscribers switch email, contacts and buddy lists over to MSN;
  • Free 24/7 customer support via phone, email, or online interactive chat;
  • Up to nine email addresses per account;
  • Add-ons such as personal finance tools, photo editing tools and homework helping applications from Microsoft’s Encarta program.
  • “We spent a lot of time and money researching this product, engaging with real families, and learning from consumers,” said Parul Shah, an MSN product manager. “We’ve taken all that data and put it into the product. Now we’re taking the product on this unique Dome tour, which will be a very grassroots experience, taking the product to people.” The MSN “Dome Tour” actually kicks off after Thursday’s launch event in New York. Starting on Friday, the 11,000-square foot Dome will be appearing at seven cities around the country. Each appearance will include musical acts and extensive demos of MSN 8 as part of the “it’s better with the butterfly” campaign.

    The company said admission to the Dome is free, although the evening musical entertainment will limited to the first 500 consumers who try MSN 8 while visiting the event.

    MSN also will continue pitching subscribers of other ISPs to subscribe to MSN’s software, browser and other new software features through a (bring-your-own access) subscription for $9.95 per month or $79.95 for an annual subscription.

    Microsoft has priced its MSN 8.0 Broadband service at between $39.95 and $49.95 per month (depending on location), which is among the lowest prices for broadband on the market.

    Christopher Saunders of internetnews.com’s Internet Advertising Report contributed to this story.

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