Does Live.com Mean the End of MSN?

One of the most frequently asked questions following the Windows Live launch on Tuesday has been: "What happens to MSN?" Microsoft executives were quick to reassure that the online brand will survive. But with Messenger, Search, Mail and more becoming Windows Live services, what's left for MSN?

The answer isn't yet clear and will likely only come into focus once Microsoft's next-generation products begin rolling out next year. What is known is that most existing MSN services will get the new Windows Live moniker.

The changes follow Microsoft's September reorganization that combined the MSN group with the Windows division.

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MSN Search will become Windows Live Search, while version 8 of MSN Messenger will be named Windows Live Messenger. Current Hotmail users will be offered a "seamless upgrade" to the AJAX-enabled Windows Live Mail that functions more like a desktop e-mail client.

OneCare, Security Center and a Web-based favorites management service will all become Windows Live products, which center around the new Live.com "starting point." Other MSN products will likely be folded into the new brand as well, with Virtual Earth already powering "Windows Live Local."

MSN.com will remain as a content portal, Microsoft contends, but its future is murky at best. Some reports have stated that Live.com will become the new default homepage in Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Vista. Moreover, the new Windows Sidebar will integrate with content modules from Live.com - not MSN.

But it's too early to be sounding the death knell just yet, says Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox, who notes that MSN will endure as a separate business group and continue to generate its own revenue through advertising.

"Microsoft isn't planning to abandon its investment in MSN.com or MSN adCenter, either. Windows Live branding eventually will be pervasive, but that makes sense," explained Wilcox. "Microsoft execs had to really push hard to convince me that Windows Live should replace MSN for product names. But I now concede that the greater brand equity is around Office or Windows."

Still, Microsoft is taking a major step by dropping the brand equity it has built up in MSN. While the former Internet service-turned online portal may not resonate well among Web 2.0 evangelists, the butterfly has soared overseas. MSN is especially popular in parts of Asia and Europe, where Hotmail is almost a de-facto standard.

MSN also has pull among younger consumers who have embraced Messenger and the company's Spaces blogging service.

It's too soon to speculate whether Windows Live and Live.com will prove a successful -- or necessary -- replacement for MSN branding, but Microsoft chairman Bill Gates is upbeat about his company's chances. "It's a revolution in how we think about software," Gates said. "The whole space is being transformed."

But beyond the grandiose vision lies some confusion. Does "Live" mean hosted services, or simply a community oriented design? Is it information, relationships, or safety? Says Wilcox: "I'll let Microsoft answer that question."

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