Next MSN Drops Version Numbers

Microsoft has officially announced the next iteration of MSN, set enter beta testing next week.

In a departure from expectations, Microsoft will not label the release version 9.0. Instead, MSN will now come in two flavors: Premium and Plus.

"Announced today is the next version of MSN, but we are no longer referring to the versions by numbers," a Microsoft spokesperson told BetaNews. "The next version is our MSN Premium and Plus."

The new MSN branding represents a shift in focus toward broadband customers and efforts by Redmond to differentiate its service from rival AOL.

AOL recently gave members early access to AOL 9.0 Optimized, with general availability scheduled for this fall. The Optimized client will be tailored to broadband users, although dial-up subscribers will notice performance enhancements as well, AOL has said.

As first reported by BetaNews, Microsoft began courting beta testers for MSN 9 -- now MSN Premium -- earlier this month. While industry watchers expected a final release to coincide with AOL 9.0, the MSN beta program is expected to run through January, indicating a launch in the first quarter of 2004.

To offset the delay, Microsoft will issue MSN Plus later this year. MSN Plus is a stripped down version of MSN Premium offering core features such as Web browsing, e-mail and instant messaging.

Microsoft has bulked up MSN Premium with a My MSN custom home page, refined dashboard and productivity applications including Money Plus, Encarta Plus and Photo Plus.

Digital photography is a centerpiece of the new MSN release. Subscribers can create and share photos via e-mail or MSN Messenger, and MSN Premium will feature a tool dubbed Photo Story for adding narration and music to online slideshows.

"MSN Premium is the first premium service offering for broadband from MSN designed specifically to let customers get the most out of their connected experience through a powerful combination of communications, sharing and online safety features," said MSN corporate vice president Yusuf Mehdi.

Both MSN Plus and Premium include a built-in pop-up blocker and junk mail filter to keep annoyances from reaching subscribers. Improved parental controls will ship with MSN Premium, which allow for age-specific settings and detailed weekly reports on a child's online activity.

Although broadband subscribers are the primary target for MSN, Microsoft will continue to support dial-up access - at least for existing customers. The company says it will announce this winter which capabilities from MSN Premium will reach dial-up subscribers.

As with MSN 8.5, MSN Premium will be priced at $9.95 USD per month for customers with an existing broadband account. Microsoft has not yet announced pricing for MSN Plus, but the lower tiered service will likely cost less.

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