MSN Unveils 'Spaces,' Messenger 7 Beta

Microsoft's MSN division has announced a series of updates to its Internet services that it hopes will make e-mail, instant messaging and sharing easier and more personalized for customers.

Specifically, Microsoft is launching a beta version of a free blogging tool dubbed MSN Spaces, a new beta build of MSN Messenger 7.0 that alerts users of changes to their contact's Spaces, and an updated Hotmail that integrates MSN Spaces and presence awareness. The services are designed to be discoverable across each other and are more deeply integrated.

Internally, Microsoft opts to call MSN Spaces "online scrapbooks" that are "more than just a blog." Aside from blogging, Spaces facilitate the sharing of photo albums and music lists. Users can assign three different levels of permissions to decide who can access their Space ranging from public to MSN Messenger contacts to private user lists.

Other features in MSN Spaces include: photo album slide shows, two-click access to purchase songs on a contact's MSN Music playlist, background personalization options, and support for RSS feeds. When users are away from the desktop, Spaces can be updated remotely via e-mail or a mobile phone.

While photos and music may be trading Spaces, MSN has devoted attention to blogs over the past year. The company has released a Blogbot, which spiders Web logs to deliver tangible search results for customer inquiries.

Both Hotmail and the new MSN Messenger 7 Beta have built-in support for Spaces. Microsoft has placed Contact Cards within each service that serve as snapshots of Spaces by mimicking their appearance and displaying up-to-date information as it is posted.

MSN Messenger users will be notified when their contacts have updated their Spaces through a new icons called "gleams" that encourage engagement through the Contact Card. MSN Lead product manager Brooke Richardson told BetaNews that engagement is a unique differentiator between MSN and its competitors. While MSN worked to improve its infrastructure over the past year -- such as by consolidating contact lists -- Richardson promises tangible end-user benefits from these releases.

MSN Messenger 7 is slated to have new personalization options borrowed from Microsoft's ThreeDegrees test bed, new transactional services, online status options, improved contact management, and integration with MSN Search. Audiophiles will also notice modest improvement to sound quality in the new Messenger beta release.

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