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New MSN feature encourages spamming friends

The latest test version of Microsoft's MSN Explorer service is setting off sparks over a feature that converts MSN email accounts to Hotmail and an accompanying spam-like missive.

The latest test version of Microsoft's MSN Explorer is setting off sparks over a feature that converts MSN email accounts to Hotmail, as well as over an accompanying spam-like missive that encourages customers to send an advertisement-laden email to friends and colleagues.

The new iteration of MSN Explorer competes with America Online's Internet service, offering a basic Internet access tool that integrates Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser with its Hotmail Web-based email program, MSN Messenger and Windows Media Player. It was introduced late last month in a preview, or beta, version.

The product is intended to bring order to Microsoft's numerous online brands as the company embraces its ambitious Microsoft.Net Web-based business strategy--a much-hyped effort to move the company beyond its PC roots and into the Internet-based software age. Early complaints about the test version of MSN Explorer could point to coming bumps as the company strives to convince consumers that what's good for Microsoft is good for them, too.

Complaints have so far focused on MSN Explorer's email features.

If an MSN email account holder installs the latest version of this software, Preview 2, the program warns the consumer that he or she will have to switch to Hotmail. If the consumer agrees, it automatically converts the account. The forced switch only affects email accounts at MSN.com.

Although the email address stays the same, critics of the forced switch say Hotmail does not offer the same level of service as MSN email. For example, the account holder can only have access to email while connected to the Internet, according to Woody Leonhard, who publishes a newsletter, Woody's Windows Watch and is outlining the problem in tomorrow's edition.

"For people like me who download email ten times a day and then work on their email offline, that won't work anymore," Leonhard said. "All of sudden, you have to be connected online to Hotmail in order to read, respond or even create new messages...It's a real mess for somebody who doesn't know what's going on."

A representative for Microsoft acknowledged that MSN Explorer forces the Hotmail switch.

"If (consumers) do choose to download Preview 2...they will also be choosing to move to Hotmail and lose POP3 email," or email on a local server, Microsoft said in a statement. "We will be offering a tool at final (version) to move users back to their POP3 client if they wish to do so."

A Microsoft representative added, "offline capability is something that we're working toward for future versions of MSN Explorer."

Other critics took aim at what they describe as a "pseudo-spam" feature of the software.

MSN Explorer asks new customers if they would like to import their contact list from Outlook or Outlook Express. If they opt for yes, the program will give them an option to notify everyone in their contact list that they have installed MSN Explorer, a default feature in the system. If new members click "yes," a message is sent.

"It's troubling because the message that's sent has 8 lines of advertising from MSN--inviting people to switch to MSN Explorer--and 1 line saying you have a new email address. And we call that the Melissa virus in slow motion," said Leonhard, who said newsletter author Barry Simon pointed out the feature last week.

Leonhard said that if you send the email to everyone in your contact list and they upload the new software, those new customers would be given the option to send the email to everyone they know in turn. "It's a chain letter," he said. "That's what Melissa did, except Melissa wasn't polite enough to ask."

Representatives from Microsoft said the optional mailing notice is not spam. "It's an opt-in feature," a representative said.

Privacy advocates critical of the notification feature pointed out that it appears to run against Microsoft's efforts this summer to make it harder to harness Outlook for spamming purposes. The company issued a security patch designed, among other things, to prevent hackers from tinkering with email addresses contained in contact lists and sending unsolicited email to those people.

"The trouble is, people don't realize all the people they have in their address books. And this will blast out an email to all of them, including email lists. So you could end up sending out a lot more email than you thought," said Richard Smith, chief technology officer at the Privacy Foundation, a nonprofit based in Denver.

"It looks like spam; and the bottom line is, it's going to push a lot of wrong buttons for people that are receiving the email," Smith said. "This is not a great feature."

Since launching, Hotmail has been plagued by security and privacy problems. Just this summer, the company acknowledged a flaw in the free email service that inadvertently sent subscribers' email addresses to online advertisers. This followed an outage that left people unable to check their email for a week; and when they finally could, their in-boxes were missing all saved emails.