MSN Web Companion May Represent Next Generation of Portals
By Cory Kleinschmidt - September 8, 2000
The recent announcement
of the MSN Web Companion, an Internet appliance, struck a chord
for me. It hit me immediately that this new device represents far
more than just a new Internet appliance.
While I'm generally bullish on the future of Internet
appliances, I also see a larger trend that may raise eyebrows. Because
this device will be entirely powered by MSN, the Companion actually
represents a new generation of online services and portals.
The Redmond, Wash., software titan has operated
its online service since 1995, but it runs on a PC with all its
possible configurations of hardware and software. This new machine
is different: It's an MSN machine, not a computer. I have no doubt
that people will snap up the MSN Companion (one model is manufactured
by Compaq), and, shoot, I might get one too, if it's not too Microsoft-centric,
as a more mobile way to access the Internet at home.
But here's my prime concern: that the Big Three
portals will further expand their grip on the Internet by tying
their massive audiences into the hardware side, too. If you get
an MSN Companion, do you think it will be very compatible with Lycos,
AltaVista, Excite, etc.?
Microsoft has its hands in several other key areas:
it's creating a new chip for WebTV; it's getting into interactive
TV; and it's launching a new version of its Internet Explorer browser
called MSN Explorer (see http://preview.msn.com/
for a beta feature list). This version of Explorer will replace
the Internet Explorer browser interface with one more akin to AOL's
splashy, colorful icon motif, and be tightly integrated with - you
guessed it - all of Microsoft's properties like Hotmail, MoneyCentral,
etc. (think Neoplanet, which
is owned by Lycos now). Although you'll still be able to browse
non-MSN sites, it's really a portal and browser in one, as Microsoft
says. It all sounds harmless enough, but this trend has another
side effect: It's another step toward a more homogenized Web.
It's inevitable that the Web will become more
homogenized, and it's already begun. Some consolidation is good,
of course, as it helps organize the chaos and din of a thousand
competing voices, but let's not go overboard. Limited choice is
The experts predicted a portal shakeout as early
as 1999, and most of them identified Yahoo, AOL and MSN as the inexorable
winners. I agreed with them back and then, and I think this notion
will still hold true. But don't worry about the second-tier portals
because they will thrive in the short term by choosing specific
niches like Go.com did, and by focusing on providing better search,
which the Big Three are not particularly good at. And this is good
for the user.
With both Microsoft and AOL poised to launch interactive
TV services, portals are already extending their brands to the hardware
and media arenas. How long before Yahoo - with its vast media resources
including Broadcast.com - gets into the Internet appliance and TV
set-top business? If these products help bring the Web more into
the mainstream, then that, too, is good for the user, I suppose.
I just hope the beauty of the Internet, with its
wide open frontier of undiscovered sites, doesn't fade away just
like dot-com stock market valuations of today.
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