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Microsoft sallies forth with new Explorer

The software titan formally launches MSN Explorer in its latest assault against the industry dominance of America Online.

Microsoft on Wednesday formally launched MSN Explorer, the software titan's latest assault against the industry dominance of America Online.

As previously reported, MSN Explorer is an Internet service that bundles Microsoft's array of Web services into its Internet Explorer browser. People who download it get free email from Hotmail, Internet access, instant messaging, multimedia feeds through the Windows Media Player, and embedded links to services such as shopping, personal finance and travel.

MSN Explorer is the next chapter in the saga of the Redmond, Wash.-based company's assaults on AOL, which Wednesday unveiled new services that allow members to access their accounts via the telephone and other non-PC devices. Over the past five years, Microsoft has tried to offset AOL's mushrooming popularity by tweaking and re-tweaking its strategy. The companies have squared off on many fronts, from developing rival online services to engaging in a high-profile game of cat and mouse over instant messaging.

The tussling has yet to dislodge Dulles, Va.-based AOL from its leadership position on the Internet, however. AOL has some 25 million customers, about eight times as many as MSN.

Microsoft's unrelenting efforts on the Internet are nothing new. It waged war against Apple Computer in the 1980s over operating systems and took on Netscape Communications in the mid-1990s, coming back again and again after blows from its competitors. In both cases, Microsoft's persistence led to eventual victory.

But this relentlessness also has gotten the company into considerable trouble. Its dealings with Netscape provided the spark the Department of Justice needed to engage Microsoft in a long-running antitrust lawsuit.

Cosmetically, MSN Explorer resembles the interface of AOL's online service. Much of the interface, however, centers on a graphically re-buffed IE toolbar. Although the new Internet software is intended for use with MSN, people who use other ISPs can install it as well.

The company said that preview versions of MSN Explorer have been downloaded 1 million times.

Along with the launch of MSN Explorer, MSN will embark on a $150 million global advertising campaign. That ad spree follows a recently concluded multimillion-dollar campaign--commercials showed four people in an empty house with only a computer and MSN access to survive--that seems not to have captured the attention of consumers.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has struck deals with H&R Block, Electronics Boutique and Musicland music stores to offer $400 rebates to consumers who sign up for MSN.