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Sit and surf: MSN UK tests portable potty

The iLoo will come complete with a PC, broadband Internet access and vacuum-suctioned plumbing--for use at summer festivals or concerts.

How far will MSN go to get new subscribers? Apparently to the portable potty at your local summer concert or festival.

MSN UK is creating what Microsoft calls the world's first Internet outhouse, or iLoo, complete with flat-screen plasma display, wireless keyboard and broadband access. MSN UK spokesman Matthew Whittingham described the portable toilet as the first "WWW.C," referring to the term W.C., or water closet.

"This is another demonstration of Microsoft moving into new product areas to expand its revenue base," said IDC analyst Roger Kay.

The iLoo isn't Microsoft's first attempt at a festival-oriented public PC. "We've had the world's first-ever cyber park bench we launched two years ago," Whittingham said. Like iLoo, the park bench served up Internet access.

The portable lavatory is being tested and will debut at festivals around Great Britain this summer. Microsoft plans to build a single prototype MSN iLoo that will travel the festival circuit, and may build more if the response to the pioneering potty warrants it, Whittingham said.

MSN UK is negotiating with toilet paper manufacturers for special rolls with Web addresses, or URLs, printed on them.

"Reading in the loo, or the bog, is a traditional English pastime," said Jeremy Davies, an analyst with U.K.-based market researcher Context. "We've all seen the magazine racks, loo paper with jokes and cartoons on the walls in toilets up and down the land. You've got to hand it to the creative--and uniquely English--minds at Microsoft."

From the outside, the iLoo is little different from other portable toilets. But inside, Microsoft serves up accoutrements that might rival some iLoo users' home PC setups. A Windows XP- powered computer resides under the sink with connection to 6-channel surround audio. A flat-screen plasma display swivels out from the side of the cabin, and a waterproof wireless keyboard can be placed on the lap for comfort.

The iLoo is equipped with 802.11b wireless networking for providing broadband Internet access. The toilet uses vacuum suction to dispose of waste.

"It's a bit of fun, and it allows younger age groups access to our key services, like Hotmail and MSN Messenger in a fun and interactive way," Whittingham said.

As strange as the iLoo might sound, Davies sees something appropriate about the invention. "We have a pretty unique toilet humor in the U.K.," he said.

A portable john with Internet access could, of course, present some problems at crowded summer events.

"It could induce a certain amount of queuing due to excess browsing on the part of users," Kay said.

To address this problem, the iLoo will be outfitted with a plasma display and waterproof keyboard outside the box, so that those waiting in line can check their Hotmail accounts.

Davies also raised concerns about the long lines. "Like my father always said: 'Get in, get it out, get out,'" he said.

Whittingham agreed that people might take longer in the toilet because of the Internet access. "If they take too long--say, hours--we'll probably bang on the door or something," he said.

Security is another issue. Because of the expensive hardware inside, Microsoft plans to post a guard to protect the iLoo.

"If we didn't post a guard, somebody would probably just lift the whole thing up and walk away with it," Whittingham said.

It's uncertain whether the MSN iLoo will do much for winning new subscribers, but the portable toilet certainly presents a unique way of promoting the brand. Worldwide, Microsoft has about 8.7 million MSN subscribers, a 300,000 decline in the first quarter from the fourth quarter.

The iLoo isn't the only new concept PC that Microsoft has under development. At next week's Windows Hardware Engineering Conference, the software giant is set to show off "Athens," which is intended to be hub for communications and collaboration.