Microsoft is doing something it hasn't done since the debut of the Microsoft Network in 1995: it's shipping a public beta of a branded version of the Internet Explorer browser. IE for MSN has a sleek, metallic look and a simplified user interface, adapted especially to take advantage of MSN content.
Unfortunately, it's also a ham-handed play to make you adopt all things Microsoft.
MSN Preview 1 apparently takes advantage of having IE5 present on your system, which is probably why my CD loaded so darn quickly. The whole installation seemed to take a minute or less. (The site says it is a 2.5MB download, however.) The preview requires little in the way of processor power - a 90MHz Pentium and 16MB of memory -and runs on Windows 95, 98 or 2000. Still, it needs either 55MB of hard disk space, or IE5 and 10MB disk space.
The bad news is that, as usual, "simple" to Microsoft means taking control. The introduction to the preview clearly states that the final version will have more features than are in the beta - meaning you can never be sure what will ultimately be in the final version. Still, Microsoft would have to restore a lot to get to the base level IE5 already provides.
For example, the beta version I tried had no File, Edit, View, or Tools menus, as there are in IE5. That means you cannot save Web pages to your computer so you can look at them later. Also, forget being able to configure the toolbars or recall your browsing history.
It doesn't seem to support a feature I use all the time, letting a simple right-click open a link in a new window. Instead, it offers you a menu button marked More Choices, under which you select New Window. All this does is open the same page you're already on; from there you can choose the link you wanted to open in the first place. So, for simplicity, you have two extra clicks.
The new MSN browser integrates a lot of Microsoft services under one interface, so if that's your thing you'll be in hog heaven. From big buttons on the toolbar, you can launch Microsoft services such as Hotmail, Messenger (Microsoft's answer to America Online's Instant Messenger), and MoneyCentral.
You can also easily access Windows Media Player through the little VCR-like controls at the lower left of the screen.
Be prepared - you need a Hotmail account even to install the preview. I found this annoying, because Hotmail's registration is nosy. It requires your postcode and even your date of birth to sign up. (It refused to assign me an account until I supplied my age.) Down the screen's left side, taking a significant bite of real estate, is a list of MSN services. Though they have simple generic names, many if not most are tied to Microsoft-owned services. The Autos link takes you to CarPoint, Microsoft's auto sales site; Games points to the Gaming Zone. Homes & Loans jumps to Home Advisor, and News carries you to MSNBC. No surprise there. It's the electronic equivalent of a tourist town on the edge of a national park where every business is owned by the same company - from the gas stations and restaurants to the souvenir shops and motels.
MSN browser gets cozy
One of the things I found most annoying is that, despite the fact that you can apparently change the default home page setting in the Settings menu, it actually changes nothing. Your home page is and always will be MSN.com.
I also found it annoying that, after having to answer Hotmail's intrusive questions about my age, my postcode, and my name, it didn't really use the information effectively. Yes, the browser knew my name and cheerfully greeted me on the home page with, "Good evening, Stuart." It even gave me the local weather forecast.
But it didn't pick up on my age and gender, and filter the top-level content on the page for me. At over 40 and growing less svelte by the day, I'm not particularly interested in either the "Top 10 secrets of successful flirts" or "Video: Meet the Victoria's Secret models".
Some choices remain
At least IE for MSN didn't make itself my default browser. Instead, it placed itself on the little double-chevron menu on the taskbar that includes the choice of showing the icons on the desktop. It also puts a shortcut on your desktop for launching it, as well as an entry on your Programs menu.
But it also doesn't automatically adopt your Favourites files either. So, if you decide you want to use it a lot, you'll have to connect to each of the Web sites you like to frequent and restore them into your Favourites one at a time.
Perhaps this heavy-handed move to brand the browser to the MSN service is a preemptive effort against America Online's (AOL) forthcoming Netscape 6.0 offering, which is currently in beta. The Netscape update will allow AOL to have customised, branded browsers for each of its customer segments. Microsoft is up front that this version of MSN is targeted at AOL, in a battle for consumer surfers.
Some wags also offered that this implementation proves that Microsoft really can detach the browser from the operating system. Given that it appears to actually use IE5, that's a slam I'm not willing to make at this point. Who knows, maybe Microsoft will even be successful. After all, who am I but another aging baby boomer?