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© 2000

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 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 never fun.

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 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 - 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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