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Microsoft tests Start site

As part of a gradual rollout of its portal, Microsoft quietly launches a public beta of its Internet Start site.

As part of a gradual rollout of its portal site, Microsoft today quietly launched a public beta of its Internet Start site.

Though the final site isn't due to be completed until the end of the year--a few months after Microsoft's original projection--the company has been constantly updating its most popular Net gateway sites.

The idea is eventually to merge its various sites and properties--such as free email company Hotmail, acquired early this year--into one overarching portal.

Instead of launching a brand-new site overnight, the process is an evolutionary one, said Ed Graczyk, product manager for Microsoft's Interactive Media Group.

Net users already have been able to see the direction in which Microsoft is heading by simply logging onto its sites: The Microsoft Network; the Microsoft Network premier page, only available to paid subscribers of MSN; the Microsoft Home page; and Hotmail.

The site posted today--Microsoft does not call it a beta--is similar to the version posted at "home.microsoft.com," and at what is presumably to be Microsoft's official Start page.

"It's all part of the initiative that we have going on to integrate our various portal efforts into a single site and move forward," he said. "It's a preview of some design improvements we're making. We want to get it out for people to provide feedback."

Mostly, the site has been slimmed down and sped up, in keeping with the trend for portal sites to rank usability over appearance. Portals that once were full of links and graphics have pared down to be as small as possible for quick loading while trying not to sacrifice extras.

It's a difficult balancing act, but the stakes are high enough to give companies incentive to keep up with the competition. Sites such as Microsoft's Start come up against players such as Yahoo, Excite, and Lycos.

But those search companies aren't the only ones in the race. Sites that are more narrowly focused and offer original content, such as Net brokerage E*Trade and sports site CBS SportsLine, also are competing, as are giants such as America Online and Microsoft's archrival in the browser business, Netscape Communications.

Coincidentally, Netscape today launched a beta of its newly redesigned portal site, Netcenter. AOL has been slowly rolling out new features on its Web site as well.

Those sites are late entrants into the portal wars. But all three have a distinct advantage over their competitors: Netscape and Microsoft produce their own browsers that, when downloaded, automatically designate their own sites as the home page. AOL puts out an AOL-branded Microsoft browser that also designates AOL as its home page.

While users can easily change their home pages to any site they want, including competing portals, many users don't do so--because they don't know how, they don't want to take the time to do it, or they are happy with the default.

In fact, it's often difficult to differentiate among the different portals because in the race for users, they regularly copy each other both in design and features.

That makes branding and marketing all that more crucial for success.

When Microsoft finally launches a singular home page, it will already have a critical mass of users who frequent the software giant's sites for a number of reasons.

But even with its advantages, Microsoft, like the others, is still concerned about keeping users it has and attracting new ones.

For instance, the beta site now includes a direct link that allows users to check their Hotmail accounts. It also includes links to the usual: search, news, and stock quotes. There is a link as well that allows people to search video clips, a main feature that is somewhat unusual for a portal.

The beta today is all about that pursuit of the best product, Graczyk said.

"We want to get it out for people to provide us feedback," Graczyk said. "We've got four different locations that millions of people go to to start their Internet experience. In a sense, we've been there and what this effort is all about is bringing them together and moving that platform forward."