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Disney showing its hand

Key portions of Disney's Net strategy may still be open-ended, but the company is revealing part of its plans.

As the Walt Disney Company (DIS) continues to work toward a spring launch of its online family and children's service, key portions of the media giant's strategy may still be open-ended.

After all, almost nobody is making money on the Web, including subscription-based sites and Internet service providers, and Disney is not known for diving headlong into losing ventures. Disney remained characteristically silent about its plans, but some new cards are being shown in its closely watched effort to become a force in cyberspace.

Friday marked the first anniversary of the "disney.com" Web site, which received a major redesign. The new design showcases Disney's products and services in theater, cable television, publishing, records, home video, and online, as well as its theme parks.

Disney's Daily Blast, which includes online games for children, could be part of this spring's offering. The company has already registered the domain name, "dailyblast.com," according to a registration service. It was created in November and lists four servers connected with the address: "huey.disney.com," two from Sprint, and one from Cerf.net.

Macromedia could be playing a role in helping to create the games with Disney characters. Disney wouldn't address questions about it, but a Macromedia executive said it was under a "nondisclosure agreement" with Disney and couldn't comment.

Overall, Disney has said that its goal is to make it "easier and faster" to wend through its site with features such as a universal navigation box and a "star watch" that lets users find information on their favorite characters.

But the resdesign also shows that "disney.com" is becoming more like a typical corporate Web site, one that sells products and services rather than being an entertainment stage.

Analysts speculate that the change is a key move in Disney's online strategy, paving the way for the company to forge ahead with its yet-unannounced online entertainment service for families and children. As reported by CNET, features planned for that service include animated "D-mail" post cards, 3D virtual chat, and online games with Disney characters.

Disney has struck alliances with companies such as ParaGraph International to help in efforts to create 3D chats. A deal with Starwave to help bolster the back-end technology is imminent.

Settling on the right economic model may be trickier, however. For example, analysts say the company may want to rethink whether to bundle Net access with the children's entertainment products, even down the road.

Nobody is making money at offering unlimited access for $19.95 a month, and the field is shaking out every day. Even Disney, with all its branding power, may have a hard time persuading members of other family-oriented online services, such as America Online and Microsoft Network, to switch over.

Disney declined to comment on any of its plans except to call "disney.com" the first of its online offerings. It plans to develop its full online presence in stages.