Tag Archives: MSN

Encarta’s Passing: Harbinger of Redmond Doom?

Microsoft has announced that Encarta, its digital encyclopedia, will be dead by year’s end. First off, hands up who thought it had died long ago?

Secondly, and before we get on to the whole Wikipedia thing, I’d like to make a more general comment about Microsoft: its online stuff is awful, and Encarta is no different. There are already plenty of people musing on why Encarta died, but I’d say one good reason is that it’s hard to access and get your mind around as pretty much every Microsoft online property.

What worries me is that this isn’t a small problem anymore. It seems indicative of Microsoft’s’s online strategy, or lack of it, and seems to suggest they’re having bigger problems than we thought.

First, you visit its webpage. Well you don’t actually. The highest result in Google is the online version, parked at MSN.com: encarta.msn.com. Before we go there, you may notice that lower down the search results, past an MSN dictionary—which may or may not be Encarta—and the Wikipedia entry on Encarta (already updated to include Encarta’s announcement) lies another Microsoft site: Encarta the product. (Interestingly, its immediately followed by articles discussing its demise, giving you a pretty good idea of how little Encarta has been discussed or linked to up until now. That such articles could rise so quickly on Google is a surprise.)

The latter website is for the downloadable software. Interestingly, no mention there that it’s a product that is dead. (By contrast, there’s mention of “web encyclopedias”, which it contrasts itself to:

Editorially approved content you can trust. In contrast to many web encyclopedias, the authors of the 60,000 plus detailed articles in Microsoft Encarta Premium 2008 are experts in their field. Your kids get relevant age-appropriate information from reliable sources.

(Many? How many web encyclopedias are there?)

Maybe it’s a glitch but try clicking on any of the links to buy said software and you get an error from DigitalRiver, the online store:

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Another example, for me, of how Microsoft online is a shambles.

Indeed, visit the first Encarta-branded link you see a different kind of logo:

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versus

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and a page that hums with mediocrity: a slice of Flash that cycles between several nothing teasers about nothing articles, tabs above that, confusingly, have one for encyclopedia—so is online Encarta not just an encyclopedia?—and some more pretty lame teasers “Beware dihydrogen monoxide! Relax, it’s just water. What other scientific pranks have people pulled?” better suited to some magazine website.

Clicking on the encyclopedia tab takes you a page that is a travesty of design and revealing about the state of the problem Microsoft faces:

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Two big MSN ads tell you they’re not pushing much ad inventory.The blank middle bit, filled only by the less than heplful instruction “Select a type of article to see a list of categories.” suggests someone there hasn’t done Design 101.

Click on the first link, to Encyclopedia Articles and you’re still hunting: “Select a category to see a list of subcategories.” By then I’m guessing you’ve probably lost interest, both in Encarta and this blog post, so I’ll leave it there. But I suspect that this poor branding, presentation, navigation and lack of non-inhouse ads has as much to do with Encarta’s demise as anything else.

My point: Is this just Microsoft scrambling around to find its way online (still) or is it a symptom of a deeper malaise at Redmond that is going to usher in a slew of announcements like Encarta’s? If so, what is next for the chop?

I’d submit a couple of candidates off the top of my head:  played with Microsoft Office’s Live plugin the other day, that supposedly lets me save and collaborate on documents online. Boy did that one suck! Then there’s FolderShare, which used to be a great product—sharing folders and files online between users and computers—which is now called Windows Live Sync, and which doesn’t seem to work. At all. (I’ve tried it on a few computers, and despite installing the software, you’re still prompted to install it even when it’s running.)

So disappointing. I’d imagined Microsoft eventually embracing and extending online but all I see is a congealed mess of half-products that can’t decide what they’re called, and where they belong. Critical though though I’ve been of Microsoft in the past, I hate to see this.

Shoot The Messenger

Every time I start to feel warm and fuzzy about Microsoft something jumps up and slaps me back to reality. Here’s my latest slap:

For some reason my Trillian messenger wasn’t connecting to MSN because of some weirdness with my ISP so I had to download and install the 9 MB behemoth that is MSN Messenger. As usual it tried to change my homepage (at least it asked first, which I don’t remember the MSN Search bar doing so) but it worked ok. But try closing it down and you get an error message:

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Which says:

There are other applications currently using features provided by MSN Messenger.  You must close these other applications before you can exit MSN Messenger.  These applications may include Outlook, Outlook Express, MSN, MSN Explorer, Internet Explorer, and Three Degrees.

Whatever Three Degrees is. (Why hasn’t Diana Ross sued yet?) Why should I have to close all these programs just to close this clunky jalopy of a program? I thought Microsoft was past all this nonsense? I didn’t have to close those programs to install the messenger, so I can’t imagine they have somehow become seamlessly integrated with Messenger inbetween whiles. Or could they? And if they could, why wasn’t I asked? And is this a good thing? No wonder my mail box is full of plaintive complaints from folk who feel their computer’s been taking over by aliens. Or zombies. Whatever.

Advice for today: Until further notice, don’t install anything that, well, has Microsoft on it.

This week’s column – Wikipedia

This week’s Loose Wire column is about Wikipedia:

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place on the Internet where educated folk pooled their knowledge for nothing, conscientiously building up a huge, orderly and free database on subjects as varied as wind gradients and the yellow-wattled lapwing?

Actually, it’s already happened. It’s an on-line encyclopaedia called Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), and it probably qualifies as the largest ever collaborative effort on the Internet. Late last month it reached a milestone: 200,000 entries (compare that with 60,000 at MSN Encarta Premium, Columbia’s 51,000 entries, and Encyclopedia.com’s 57,000 articles). By the end of this year, Wikipedia is expected to have about 330,000 articles.

Full text at the Far Eastern Economic Review (subscription required, trial available) or at WSJ.com (subscription required). Old columns at feer.com here.

Microsoft Rush Out New Toolbar

Microsoft’s MSN have gone the way of Google and launched a toolbar that also blocks pop-ups.

To explain the business behind this business, read the excellent Microsoft Monitor. It points out that Google’s toolbar does all this already, and is at the same time diverting searches away from Microsoft. Given that a ‘sizeable chunk’ of Microsoft’s ad revenue comes from paid searches, this hurts. Hence the toolbar, which, like Internet Explorer’s default search engine (and most other Microsoft products), will take you to MSN. As Microsoft Watch points out, this is the old MSN search engine, not their spanking new one.

Then there’s the pop-up blocker. Microsoft Monitor reckon that “40 percent of consumers say they find traditional pop-up ads to be the most annoying forms of on online advertising”. Internet Explorer doesn’t block ads, and won’t until the release of a Windows XP Service Pack (a kind of add-on, pulling together all the updates since the last Service Pack) later this year. It’s clear Microsoft can’t wait that long, hence the toolbar.

Goodbye To The Browser?

Here’s some more interesting end-of-year stuff from Nielsen//NetRatings: a report issued today (PDF file) says that three out of every four home and work Internet users access the Internet using a non-browser based Internet application, particularly media players, instant messengers and file sharing applications. “With 76 percent of Web surfers using Internet applications, functionality has grown beyond the browser to become a fundamental piece of the overall desktop,” said Abha Bhagat, senior analyst Nielsen//NetRatings. “It’s become harder to distinguish when you’re on the Internet, blurring the lines between what’s sitting on the desktop and what’s coming from the World Wide Web.”

According to the report, the top five applications are Windows Media Player, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN Messenger Service and Real Player. Of these top five applications, Windows Media has the largest active user reach at 34 percent. AOL Instant Messenger was next at 20 percent, followed by Real Player also at 20 percent, MSN Messenger Service at 19 percent and Yahoo! Messenger Service, which reaches 12 percent of the active user base.

Interesting. But what does it actually tell us? First off, we shouldn’t get confused by the data. This doesn’t mean that folks are eschewing the browser, just that a lot of other programs are also connecting to the Internet (where is e-mail in all this?). Second, if Real Networks and MSN Messenger are anything to go by, a lot of these programs access the Internet without the user doing anything (or even knowing about it) so does this actually count? Lastly, there’s been plenty written already about how Microsoft is moving past the browser to incorporate similar functionality into its Office and other products — say Microsoft Word 2003’s Research Pane, for example — so it’s clear the big boys would have us move to more proprietary, locked-in environments, which all of the top five applications have in common. We’re not so much witnessing a demographic change as a deliberate shove by the main players.

My wish list? I’d like to see all of these players stop hoodwinking the end-user by loading their programs into the start-up queue automatically (you know who you are). It’s deliberately misleading (read: sleazy), it hogs resources and it skews data like Nielsen’s. I’d also like to see AOL, MSN and Yahoo all agree to share their instant messaging lists so folk like me don’t have to use great alternatives like Trillian to pull together our disparate buddy networks (Trillian will lump all your different Instant Messaging accounts into one easy to view window, minus all the ads and annoying pop-ups).

I see no danger in the browser gradually being phased out for plenty of web-related tasks. But, if the Internet has really become ‘part of the desktop’ let’s try to make it a place where ordinary folk can hang out without too much hassle.

News: Microsoft Takes on Google’s Customisable News

 Microsoft is taking on Google, at least in its news. The New Scientist says Microsoft is testing a a news-gathering web site that tailors the stories selected to individual users. Once MSN Newsbot is fully functional, Microsoft says the site will personalise results within 10 minutes of a user starting to browse.
 
Microsoft is not revealing exactly how its site will work. But experts say there are several possible types of algorithm that could be used. One is similar to those Amazon.com uses to recommend additional books a buyer might like. This algorithm analyses the other choices of people who have already bought the first book. A news site would instead group articles according to the reading patterns of previous users.

News: Worming Its Way Into Korea

 Warning of a new computer worm, this time from South Korea. Yonhap reports Friday that W32/Smess.worm, BadTrans, appears attached to an instant message in MSN’s instant messenger service. The worm is a mutant version of another worm called Sinmsn, which was detected last July.
 
MSN’s messenger service, which gives pairs or groups of users the capability to send instantaneous text messages to each other via the Internet, is one of the most popular communication tools in South Korea, where more than 10 million customers are connected to the broadband Internet.

Less Features, Less Bugs Please

 From the It’s About Time Someone’s Talking Sense Dept comes an interesting column by Sean Ammirati the founder and director of Avanti Strategies, who points out that in software, as in most things, less is more (and whose web site seems to take the concept to its furthest practical point).
 
 
Writing in InformationWeek he says that “although software companies would hate to admit it, most people don’t use all the features of their products.” Exactly. What wouldn’t users like me give to have a new version of a program with less features, and less bugs? It’s time for another column ranting about the ridiculous bugs of programs like Microsoft Encarta, Money and Office that somehow survive from version to version.
 

News: Another Reason To Dump MSN Messenger?

 Microsoft look like they’re going their own way again. An article by IDG says it’s making changes to its MSN instant messaging (IM) service that will lock out users of third-party software that uses the service as well as users of older versions of Microsoft’s own Messenger client.
 
 
Users have to upgrade to the latest versions of MSN or Windows Messenger by Oct. 15 or they will no longer be able to log on, Microsoft spokesman Sean Sundwall said. This will lock out, at least for a while, users of IM software such as Trillian, Imici and Odigo that allow users to consolidate multiple IM accounts in one client.

Software: Money, Money, Money

Microsoft has just released a new version of its Money software, 2004. New features:
— An extensive Credit Center provides a free credit report and one year of ongoing credit monitoring, in addition to a summary of debt accounts, educational content, access to “what-if” scenarios and information on credit protection.
— Money 2004 Premium offers an exclusive collection of valuable financial services, a $365 value, including two years of MSN(r) Bill Pay, capital gains tax optimizer from GainsKeeper, one-time free federal online tax preparation and filing from H&R Block, one free credit report, credit alerts and one year of ongoing monitoring from Experian Consumer Direct, and a complimentary initial personal financial consultation with American Express.
— Money 2004 is the only personal finance management software to offer the GainsKeeper service, which helps consumers better monitor and minimize the tax implications of their investment decisions.
The software further ties in with the MSN Money Web site to provide convenient, timely access to relevant and current information, including world-class financial news, information, tools and services.

You can download a trial version from here. I’ve been disappointed with previous versions which seem to add features but not to address existing bugs. Sound familiar?