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The range of services offered by MSN has changed since its initial release in 1995. MSN was once a simple online service for Windows 95, an early experiment at interactive multimedia content on the Internet, and one of the most popular dial-up Internet service providers. MSN was primarily a popular Internet portal.

Microsoft used the MSN brand name to promote numerous popular web-based services in the late 1990s, most notably Hotmail and Microsoft Messenger service, before reorganizing many of them in 2005 under another brand name, Windows Live. MSN.com was the 17th most visited domain name on the Internet.[3]

The concept for MSN was created by the Advanced Technology Group at Microsoft, headed by Nathan Myhrvold. MSN was originally conceived as a dial-up online content provider like America Online, supplying proprietary content through an artificial folder-like interface integrated into Windows 95s Windows Explorer file management program. Categories on MSN appeared like folders in the file system.[4]

Then officially known as The Microsoft Network, the service launched along with Windows 95 on August 24, 1995. MSN was included with Windows 95 installations and promoted through Windows and other Microsoft software released at the time. Product support and discussion was offered through the MSN service, as well as information such as news and weather, basic e-mail capabilities, chat rooms, and message boards similar to newsgroups.

Open access to the World Wide Web was not originally included in the classic MSN service at the time of its initial launch, but Internet access was quickly offered through Microsofts Internet Explorer web browser, which was available as a download from the MSN service or as part of the Windows 95 Plus! package.[4]

Microsoft promoted MSN 2.0 with a series of advertisements and promotional materials describing the service with the phrase, "Every new universe begins with a big bang." The company offered the initial release of the new MSN 2.0 service on a CD-ROM that it sent to MSN subscribers in the fall of 1996. When inserted, the CD-ROM opened to the ambitious and flashy MSN Preview, an interactive video-based experience that introduced current and prospective subscribers to the new version of MSN and described the features of the MSN 2.0 software.[8]

The MSN Preview was formatted as a guided tour of a mock premiere event for the new MSN. It was hosted by a witty and sarcastic character named Michael who welcomed viewers outside of a theatre and then guided them through the theatre to meet several other characters, each of whom represented one of the channels of MSN 2.0s On Stage area, which was designed as the main platform for interactive multimedia content in MSN 2.0.[8]

The new content made extensive use of multimedia and interactive features, including Visual Basic scripting and early implementations of Macromedia Shockwave Flash (originally called FutureSplash) for animations.[12]

While the MSN shows approach was unique and innovative, the content was not easily accessible by members with low-end computers and slower dial-up connections. High-speed Internet access was not widely available at the time, and some users subscribed to monthly dial-up plans that limited the number of hours during which they were allowed to access the service. The MSN 2.0 software was also unstable and would often quit unexpectedly.[11]

Ultimately, the ambitious use of web-based and interactive multimedia content on the Internet during 1996 and 1997 proved to be ahead of its time, and the MSN 2.0 service was not as successful as Microsoft initially hoped. The company returned to the drawing board for its next MSN release.[5][16][17]

In 1997, after abandoning the interactive multimedia format, the MSN service was again re-focused, this time as a more traditional Internet access service. With the release of MSN 2.5 in late 1997, some exclusive MSN branded content was still offered through the MSN Program Viewer, but the service mainly directed members to normal, text-based web sites that anyone on the Internet could access, instead of interactive shows.[18]

Accompanying the MSN Program Viewer in MSN 2.5 was MSN Quick Launch, an icon inside the Windows notification area. Like the MSN Program Viewer in MSN 2.0, the menu in MSN Quick Launch could be dynamically updated to guide members to updated MSN content and services.

With the MSN Internet Access 2.6 release in 1998, the MSN Program Viewer was abandoned entirely in favor of the more familiar Internet Explorer. Another new version of the service, MSN Internet Access 5.0, was released along with Internet Explorer 5.0 in 1999. MSN 5.0 was largely identical to MSN 2.6.

Around this time, MSN began to focus on being an Internet portal to users of other Internet service providers.