Microsoft fights Yahoo, AOL

The giant is building a home page that brings together all its properties, including a search engine and free email, to compete with rival services and aggregators.

Microsoft(MSFT), in a bid to make itself as ubiquitous on the Net as it is in software, quietly is building a new weapon: a home page that will bring together all its properties, including a search engine designed by Inktomi and its newly acquired free email service Hotmail, sources said.

The new home page, code-named Microsoft Start, eventually will replace Microsoft's two other so-called portal sites: "MSN.com" and "home.microsoft.com."

The new page, which is not yet officially named, will not actually replace MSN as a dial-up and premium membership network, sources told CNET's NEWS.COM. Rather, it just will become the page where MSN members go when they log on to the Net.

It won't be the portal just for MSN users, however--it will be the front door to Microsoft for anyone logging on to the Web, whether to get new software or to check out the latest articles in Slate. In other words, it is being designed as a front door for everyone. But, sources said, users who only want to go to a particular Microsoft site still will be able to do so by punching in the right address.

Microsoft Start goes into closed beta testing February 9, and the full site is expected to launch in late summer or early fall, sources said. The site will include a complete search engine designed by Inktomi, code-named Yukon, and free email from Hotmail, as well as full links to all of Microsoft's sites, and a customized front page. The customized page will let users bring up components of other Microsoft pages such as stock tickers, along with those of its partners, the sources said.

Microsoft's plans to launch a new home page, designed to attract as many Netizens as possible, should come as no surprise.

Microsoft has been waging this battle for quite a while, along with Yahoo, Excite, and America Online, among others.

They all are trying to drive as much traffic as possible to their sites with the ultimate goal of maximizing advertising revenue.

Microsoft has been putting most of its Internet eggs in the MSN basket, hoping that the Web version would attract users to the Microsoft family of Net offerings, including sites such as CarPoint for buying cars and Expedia, an online travel agency.

Executives have said that Microsoft's proprietary online service will not be killed, at least not in the next year or two, but they also have begun shifting focus away from the network and onto the Web.

Executives ultimately may try to sell the access part of the business, but for now it makes sense to keep it: MSN has more than 2 million members at last count, making it No. 2 in the online service business behind AOL.

For the past several months, Microsoft has been making moves showing that it has shifted strategies, including adding pull-down menus linking all its sites together.

AOL probably is Microsoft's most formidable competitor. Although it often is everybody's favorite target for complaints, AOL has 11 million members and is building its own portal on the Web. AOL has another huge advantage: when people use AOL to get to the Web, their home page is "aol.com" unless they change it.

People who download Microsoft's Web browser, Internet Explorer, directly from the Microsoft Web page also have a default home page that takes them to "microsoft.com." When the new site is launched, Microsoft will be able to program the browsers to point to the new page.

That will give it some advantage, just as Netscape Communications has by programming its browsers so the home page points to its own site. But users can easily reprogram their home pages, and most of the browsers on the market are shipped by Internet service providers that change the home pages to their own sites or those of their content partners.

Microsoft is hoping, however, that its entire package of goods--its Web site, the search engine, the free email, and other features such as buddy lists and instant messaging (services that AOL made popular)--will entice enough people to its site, making it as powerful on the Web as it is elsewhere.

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