Microsoft Rebrands MSN to Focus on Content

Microsoft Corp.'s plans to rebrand its free e-mail, instant messenger and Web search products under the name "Live" could be interpreted as a sign that MSN — the unit that previously housed those products — is a sinking ship.

But John Nicol, the executive recently put in charge of MSN, insists that isn't the case. In an interview Thursday, he said the changes will allow MSN, Microsoft's Internet portal, to focus more on providing content such as entertainment and even home videos.

Nicol, a longtime Microsoft executive who took over as general manager of MSN about three months ago, said the revamped MSN will include more opportunities for users to contribute their own content, such as posting their own videos or rating hotels on the unit's travel site.

A major focus will be on providing more video content online, aiming to go beyond just rebroadcasting television. As an example, he cited an MSN Web site, launched last summer, that complemented a reality show search for a new lead singer for INXS.

(In a separate arrangement, The Associated Press is launching an ad-supported online video news network using technology and advertising support from Microsoft.)

Matt Rosoff, analyst with independent researchers Directions on Microsoft, said he's still waiting to see what resources Microsoft plans to devote to MSN, especially since the company is so heavily focused on the Live effort that will now include the former MSN products.

"Until I actually start seeing new products, or even updates to existing MSN products, I remain skeptical that it's really a focus for the company," he said.

Microsoft is heavily touting Live as a broad foray into offering software and services over the Internet. Analysts say it is a way to better compete with Google Inc., Yahoo Inc. and other companies that give people such tools.

The concern for Microsoft is that people will increasingly turn to free online tools for things such as sending e-mail and storing photos — tasks they have traditionally done on PCs powered by its Windows operating system. That, in turn, could eventually make people question why they need pricey Windows software.

The Redmond, Wash.-based company says the Live tools are meant to complement Windows. They will eventually include former MSN products such as Hotmail, MSN Messenger, MSN Search and MSN Spaces, Microsoft's blogging offering.

But technology analyst Rob Enderle said splitting Microsoft's online efforts into two brand names is confusing. He prefers a more consistent brand strategy that requires people to remember only one name.

"Any time you confuse the consumer, you typically give your competitors an edge, so from my standpoint it doesn't look to be a particularly good idea," he said.

Nicol conceded there is some confusion. But he said he expects it to dissipate once the new products are launched.