Will Gates & Co create a new mass medium with the relaunch of MSN?
It's often said that the first version of any Microsoft product is always a disaster. It's not until version 2, or even version 3, that Microsoft gets it right. If that's the case, then the company is running true to form with MSN, the Microsoft Network. Launched in August 1995, MSN was intended as a rival to online services such as CompuServe and America Online. But it was widely criticised for being difficult to use and for failing to match the range of information and services offered by its rivals.

Ironically, all three services shared a common weakness. They were originally designed as self-contained computer networks that were separate from the global network of the Internet. The sudden rise of the Net left all the online services struggling to maintain their membership levels. With limited access to the Net, and less attractive content than CompuServe or America Online, MSN seemed the weakest of the three.

Bill Gates, Microsoft's CEO, admitted last December that the company had been caught out by the popularity of the Net. Since then, the company has been scrambling to relaunch MSN in a way that would take advantage of the Net.

"The technology shift we've been through in the last nine months has been a painful one," admitted Laura Jennings, MSN vice-president, at the launch of the new MSN. "But it gave us the opportunity to rethink from the ground up."

The results of that rethink are impressive, and although Microsoft isn't officially calling it MSN 2.0, the new service is definitely a major step forward. The first change that Microsoft made was to shift the entire service on to the World Wide Web. The new Program Viewer software that is used to gain access to MSN is actually a modified version of Internet Explorer, Microsoft's Web browser program.

Program Viewer is certainly easier to use than the original MSN software, but it will only run on PCs using the Windows 95 operating system. This means that users of Macs or PCs with Windows 3.1 can't gain full access to MSN's services.

If you've got Windows 95, however, there's plenty for you to look at. The most striking feature of the new MSN is that its format is more like that of a television network than a conventional online service. Standard services, such as e-mail and chat rooms, are still there, along with reference sections for subjects such as travel, computing and personal finance. But the core is an area called "On Stage".

This is made up of six "channels", each with its own type of programming - and that's programming in the television sense of the word, rather than computer programming.

Channel 1 is devoted to MSNBC, a 24-hour news and current affairs service jointly run by Microsoft and NBC which operates on cable and terrestrial television networks as well as on the Net. Channel 2 is for mainstream programming, and includes an online version of Entertainment Tonight, a soap opera called 475 Madison, and Star Trek: Continuum, a news and gossip program for Star Trek fans.

Other channels focus on subjects such as the media, travel and exploration, and there are two channels aimed at teens and pre-teens. The information sources on the original MSN tended to be provided by independent companies, such as newspapers or magazines that wanted an online presence. But most of the programming on the new MSN is commissioned and developed by Microsoft's own production company, called M3P.

With more than 40 shows in development for MSN, in addition to the MSNBC news service, Microsoft is transforming itself into a world-class media company. The computer and entertainment industries have been getting closer for several years, and they finally seem to have converged on MSN.

There's no guarantee that the new MSN will be a success, of course, but Microsoft can afford to take that risk. Its ambition with MSN is nothing less than turning the Net into a new mass medium for the 21st century.

The company believes that the way to achieve this is by producing "compelling content" that will keep people coming back to it. Bill Gates has committed Microsoft to spending "many hundreds of millions of dollars a year" on developing content for MSN - and you can't get much more compelling than that n

Internet users can visit the free areas of MSN at http://www.msn.com