A study conducted by a market research firm may have injected life back into Microsoft's relatively obscure MSN Internet Access service.
Microsoft has underplayed its Internet access initiatives ever since it shifted its Net strategy to focus on the free Web space about a year ago, and since has transferred the MSN title to the MSN.com portal site and its accompanying properties.
The study examined subscriber responses to service reliability issues like online access, integrity, value, and technical support. It ranked MSN Internet Access the highest in reliability scores.
"Microsoft Network users believe that the firm stands behind its service, is a technical innovator, and offers services at a reasonable cost," Peter Dresch, director of telecommunications market analysis at J.D. Power, said in a statement.
Launched as a competitor to AOL, MSN originally featured original content and many bells and whistles. But in the face of stagnant growth and AOL's increasing appeal to mainstream consumers, Microsoft slimmed down MSN to what it is today: an ISP with just a few perks thrown in, such as a free subscriptions to Slate and MSN Investor.
Once seen as a possible AOL-killer, MSN never achieved the kind of mass-market appeal that AOL has. For the past two years, it has struggled to find a winning formula, and, according to the J.D. Power survey, it may have finally succeeded.
Microsoft responded positively to the findings. "This is so exciting that we're going to take the opportunity to be more visible," said Will Diefenbach, group product manager for MSN Internet Access.
He added that MSN Internet Access will continue its subscriber acquisition strategy by contacting consumers it considers eligible via direct mail, sending out CDs with free trials of the service, as well as by marketing the service in online and print advertising.
But despite the positive findings of the J.D. Power survey, there still are many indications that Microsoft's hefty promotional engines are neglecting the ISP. Even though MSN Internet Access--with a subscriber base estimated at just under 2 million, according to Jupiter Communications--is still one of the largest ISPs, not counting AOL, its growth has been rather flat. And its subscriber base still pales in comparison to AOL's 13.5 million members.
MSN declines to disclose its current subscriber numbers, or its rate of growth. But Jupiter senior analyst Patrick Keane said Microsoft should focus more heavily on boosting its MSN.com figures. The battle these days is for Yahoo's Web business, and not AOL's access business, he said.
"In general, they've completely stopped marketing it," Keane said. "It's a battle they've already lost--and they've admitted defeat--to AOL in terms of the access game."