, senior vice president of information services at MSN, told him the company "wanted to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build this network into what it should be," Nicol said Thursday in an interview with CNET News.com that marked the public announcement of his new role. "My first question was, 'Who is this, really?'"
general manager, MSN
Soon Nicol, previously head of MSNBC and involved in MSN's TV strategy, was back on a plane to Microsoft's hometown of Redmond, Wash., ready to help transform MSN into an entertainment powerhouse. He faced a challenging task, given the competition from market leader Yahoo and from Time Warner's America Online unit, which was pushing its remodeled portal hard.
MSN, with nearly 60 percent reach among U.S. Web surfers in December, is ranked second among portals, behind Yahoo, which has 68 percent active reach, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.
"It's not a complete overhaul, in the sense that we have a solid foundation with many users," he said. "What you will see permeate the site is a whole new personality built around video and user-generated content."
Nicol, who rejoined Microsoft in November to head up MSN, said he will work to "bring out the soul" of the portal.
Faced with increasing competition from other portals and the threat that Google and its hosted services pose to desktop software, Microsoftthat moved MSN into its main product unit.
In November, Microsoft, a set of Internet-based personal services, such as e-mail, blogging and instant messaging.
Meanwhile, MSN pushed into entertainment and original content in the 1990s but has been backing away from that in recent years,in 2003 and late last year.
Now the portal will look to partners and users for material.
"Our mission is to be the best at anticipating what our viewers most want to see, read, interact with on the Internet, and allow them to participate in its creation," Nicol said.
Like the others, MSN is planning to appeal to users' interest in video entertainment and user-generated content, and to offer more content in niche areas like money, lifestyle and sports, tying everything more closely together, he said.
As further proof that Microsoft is ramping up its entertainment strategy, the company announced two promotions within MSN earlier this week. Rob Bennett, project unit manager at MSN Video, Movies and TV, was promoted to general manager of entertainment and video services for MSN. Joe Michaels was promoted to director of business development of entertainment and video services for MSN, from senior business development manager at MSN Video.
"Microsoft wants me to build this into what we think a media network should be," Nicol said. "I don't think we have a good coherent personality today, and we don't have the best navigation tools to link content."
For instance, someone watching a Dead Can Dance music video will eventually be able to easily see news on the group, buy their CD, view photos and see what other fans have been saying about them.
However, the distinction between MSN and Windows Live remains unclear, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.
"I'm not sure how much priority Microsoft is giving original content versus how much priority they're giving Windows Live," Rosoff said. "My guess is that Microsoft has said we've got these high-traffic services, and we want to better monetize those under Windows Live, and then we've still got these content sites, and they gave John Nicol a mandate to do something new with them or increase traffic to them."
Michael Gartenberg at JupiterResearch had a different take.
"MSN is evolving into a portal to provide different kinds of content and services that are differentiated from what I get from Windows Live," he said. "It's an opportunity for them to bolster and update some of the services under one strong brand, which is Windows, and use that as an opportunity to drive the relationship Microsoft has with the desktop going forward."
Nicol said he is planning a big public launch for the new MSN later this year but expects to roll out some sections and features earlier, like a new travel section, which will come within the next few weeks.
"We'll announce a new travel section where we go from what has been essentially a booking page to something more expansive with research and lots of user-generated content throughout the network," he said. "Later on, we will expand it to offer the ability to upload photos to our user base and more video content, including user-created video," he said.
And, no, the company is not changing the name to MSN Media Network, as was reported recently, he said. "That was started because I've often referred to (MSN) internally as a media network," he said. "There will be no name change."