MSN toolbar beta makes its debut

Microsoft says the toolbar provides easier access to the company's various Internet portal services, such as Web-based e-mail and search.

Microsoft has introduced a test version of its MSN Toolbar meant to offer easier access to the company's various Internet portal services such as Web-based e-mail and search.

The toolbar, which consumers can download for free and can set to appear in their Web-browsing software, offers single-click access to Microsoft's array of sites and applications, including Hotmail Web-based e-mail and the MSN instant-messaging software and search engine. It also provides access to the company's collection of content sites, such as MSNBC.com; features pop-up ad-blocking capabilities; and offers a new tool for highlighting preferred Web content.

The MSN Toolbar features a drop-down menu providing access to Microsoft's entertainment, financial, shopping and encyclopedia sites, in addition to its Web-based yellow and white pages listings. Microsoft said Monday it will automatically update the toolbar's features as newer versions become available.

The software giant faces stiff competition from portal rivals such as Yahoo and America Online. It recently announced a deal that will allow consumers to access their accounts at eBay, the popular online auction site, directly from its My MSN personalized Web pages. That agreement marks the first time eBay has partnered with a Web portal in such a manner.

Microsoft also is out to better its position against search engine providers such as Google. The Redmond, Wash.-based company has said it will invest $500 million to develop a system that allows people to search the Web, e-mail and desktop applications such as Microsoft Word; it's set to debut through the company's next operating system, dubbed Longhorn.

Earlier this month, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates relaunched MSN with a new look and feel and upgraded versions of most of its services, including Hotmail. The MSN revamp and toolbar are part of the company's effort to revive its dial-up Internet access business, which has declined in subscribers due to greater adoption of cable and phone companies' faster broadband services. Microsoft's Internet service provider customers use MSN as a point of entry to the Web.

Net operators Yahoo and EarthLink also have been considering broadening their search businesses by providing access to online searches through a "taskbar" displayed on the side or at the bottom of a PC screen. Taskbar search tools are similar to toolbar applications, but there is an important difference: They reside in the system tray in Microsoft's Windows operating system, allowing queries independently of the browser or any other applications running on the desktop.

As it fights for a larger share of the Internet portal market, Microsoft also plans to launch an online music store.

CNET News.com's Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.

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