With the release of MSN Explorer, which integrates a number of Microsoft apps and sites into a single browser-based interface, Microsoft is making no secret of its plan to create the type of easy-to-use package that has made America Online the No. 1 ISP in the world.

So how does the new MSN Explorer compare to AOL? And more importantly, is it "AOLish" enough to lure current AOL users to MSN? Let's take a look at the newly-released MSNE and you can make up your own mind.

Opening impressions

First off, you can download the MSN Explorer for yourself at explorer.msn.com. Be prepared to wait though, because it's a hefty download that weighs in at just over 19MB (which will take you just about 2 hours to download on a 56K modem). Also, MSNE is intended for US users who run an English version of Microsoft Windows. The installer is something different than the flashy and intrusive ones most of us are used to for Windows-based apps -- you pretty much sit back and click "yes" a couple of times. The End User License Agreement caught my eye for this declaration, though:

"You acknowledge and agree that Microsoft may automatically check the version of MSN software and components you are utilizing and may provide upgrades to such software that will be automatically downloaded to your computer. Microsoft may also automatically upload performance and usage information."

Which basically says, "We're going to install upgrades whenever we want, with or without you knowing about it, and we're going to monitor your browsing habits." This is a pretty standard Microsoft thing to say.


The MSN Explorer install screen

After you have completed the install, a mandatory Windows reboot is required. Once you return, a MSN butterfly has been installed both in your taskbar and systray. Clicking on this launches the configuration portion of the setup where you're asked to specify how you connect to the Internet (it looks like it grabs all available networking options, as you can see in my screenshot).


Configuring MSN Explorer

The setup also asks you to provide an email address you'd like to use, or it will create a new email account (through Hotmail) for you. Although I don't use Outlook Express, I've been told that it totally screws up your Outlook Express mail by trying to integrate it into Hotmail somehow, but I don't have specifics on this yet (anyone?).

Features of MSNE

Once you've set up the first user, MSNE finally launches and sends you to msn.com, where a somewhat personalized MSN homepage based on your ZIP code is waiting for you, displaying the current local news and temperature in the closest major city. New users can take a "tour" that will aquaint them with the features of MSNE and give them a very basic intro to things like email and browsing the Web.

The first thing that caught my attention about the browser is its somewhat cartoonish appearance and the use of a "skin." The new look and feel of MSNE makes me think:

  1. That Microsoft gave 45 preschool children a box of crayons and let them design the interface.

  2. The above-mentioned children were only given a box of crayons containing colors found in the MSN butterfly logo.

  3. That Microsoft is really trying to appeal to the whole "skinning" trend. (This skin happens to look like the sawfish theme for Linux.)

  4. I'm not getting far out of the Microsoft realm of Web sites (hotmail.com, bcentral.com, etc.) using any of the pre-set icons/links.

  5. And finally, that sidebar on the left really, really takes up a lot of real estate.


'Welcome to MSN Explorer'

The interface seems to be pretty static; you can't move any of the toolbars or icons or alter them (changing the "Music" icon to point to mp3.com, for example). However, this is the point of using MSNE: to make things as easy to use as possible and make everyone feel safe by holding their hands while they visit pre-approved, Microsoft-owned Web sites.

The icon bar on the top of the browser has links for "Home," which you can't alter to point anywhere except msn.com; "E-mail," which takes you to hotmail.com; the "Favorites" icon; "Online Buddies" for integration with MSN Messenger; "People & Chat," which also ties in to Messenger; "Money." which leads to Microsoft's Moneycentral.com; "Shopping" will take you to eshop.msn.com; and finally "Music" points you to windowsmedia.com, which leads to the one cool feature I found with MSNE: the integrated Windows Media Player.

The integrated media player, which stays hidden in the lower-left corner of the ever-present left-hand navigation bar, is the epitome of the Microsoft mantra: integration. Whenever you play a .wmf (Windows media format) file, it opens the integrated player and shows the video or plays the audio in an embedded player that has some simple controls for playback. If the paltry 150x100 pixel playback isn't big enough for you, there is an option to open the playback in a larger, separate window. This integrated player is the one feature I was impressed with, but the lack of support for other formats like Real and Quicktime made me feel left out since I don't really use .wmf files that much. So I won't get to use the one cool feature I found in MSNE.


The integrated media player

Another feature I found disappointing was the omnipresent left-hand navigation bar that takes up entirely too much room. Microsoft is positioning MSNE as the thing for people that are just getting into the Internet, so why didn't they take into account the fact that people who are just getting into the Internet probably have their resolutions set to 640x480 pixels? Following this logic leads to the realization that the left-hand navigation will account for 25 percent of the width of the screen, leaving too little room for the actual content the browser is delivering. Even on sites that are designed for this resolution in mind, the dreaded horizontal navigation bar will appear, degrading the browsing experience -- never mind sites that shoot for 800x600 resolution or higher. All this for "My Stocks, My Calendar, My Web Sites, My Photos" links, a search box, news from MSNBC and the embedded media player. I think Microsoft made a big mistake here in not even allowing a sliding panel to hide the navigation bar when not in use.

Final Impressions

MSNE is supposedly the first product to make use of Microsoft ".Net" technology. It does this through the use of passport.com and its features to remember personal information across a range of sites that use passport.com technology. In reality, this is nothing more than setting cookies across sites. While it does eliminate the need to remember user names and passwords for passport.com-enabled sites, this is a very unsafe thing to be doing, even though Microsoft is trying to convince people otherwise. I'm fairly certain that within a year you'll see some kind of exploit/crack/hack that exploits this technology and exposes passport users' private information.

Microsoft, and by extension MSN, is trying to show with MSNE that you don't need a service like AOL to give users an easy-to-use, safe, end-to-end experience. They're trying to prove that with the right interface and the right tightly-controlled -- but publicly-available -- Web sites, they can give users many of the same features that AOL currently touts. I think that Microsoft is also trying to appeal to those current AOL customers who don't want to have to deal with setting up a network connection and those who are relatively computer illiterate, who want their online experience to be as hassle- and pain-free as possible. Even though MSN could in fact give customers many things they now enjoy with AOL, and the new interface is geared towards Internet newbies (and preschoolers that really dig cartoons), I don't really see MSN stealing current AOL customers away. After all, they're comfortable with AOL and switching ISPs would be exactly the headache they want to avoid in the first place. MSN would have been better off trying to appeal to those AOL veterans who are looking for the next step up in the Internet experience, not to (somewhat) satisfied AOL members who are happy where they are and unwilling to make a change.

At the end of the day, when all the hype settles and Microsoft's current marketing blitz winds down, MSN will probably be in the same position it's in now: trying to figure out how to convince some of AOL's 30 million-plus customers that the grass is MSN butterfly-greener on their side of the fence.

Have you used MSN Explorer yet and have an opinion on it, or think that Microsoft will make a run at AOL 6.0 this year? Let us hear about it by posting your comments below.