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New MSN leaks onto Internet

A preview of an upcoming version of Microsoft's Internet service leaks onto the Web, offering an early glimpse at the software giant's ever-evolving online strategy.

A preview of an upcoming version of Microsoft's MSN service has leaked onto the Web, offering an early glimpse at the software giant's ever-evolving online strategy.

The new software, dubbed MSN 8.5, comes five months after the launch of MSN 8, which Microsoft considered the most significant update of its Internet service since its inception.

A Microsoft representative would not confirm that the download is authentic, but a version downloaded by CNET included branding and copyright information consistent with Microsoft's products.

By late Thursday morning, the link to the beta software had been taken down.

The representative said the name MSN 8.5 was not officially established and was subject to change, despite the use of MSN 8.5 in the preview version. The representative also confirmed Microsoft sent notices soliciting beta testers for the service.

"We sent information out to let people know if they're interested in testing improvements to the product," the representative said.

Microsoft has made minor changes throughout the software, starting with tweaks to MSN's e-mail program. The upper-left corner of the mail window carries a gauge that shows how much online mail storage is available. Other subtle tweaks include the addition of a search button to the e-mail toolbar and the relocation of the settings option to the bottom left of the screen from the top left. Microsoft also added a drop-down menu to the in-box so that e-mail can be filtered by people the MSN user knows.

In the new release, Microsoft has also bulked up MSN's junk mail filter, adding more control over access to images in messages from unknown senders. MSN users can prevent images from loading in the preview pane, which could be an important control for preventing the viewing of sexual images in porn spam. The blocking is tied to the junk mail filter, which if set on low would still allow the images to load.

There is also now the option of blocking hidden images in Web-based e-mail--images are typically found in spam e-mail. When some images are downloaded in spam e-mail, they can act as what is known as Web beacons, indicating to spammers that the e-mail address is in fact valid. Viewing the message in a preview pane without opening it is enough to trigger the Web beacon. The beacon can lead to more unwanted mail from the original sender and, potentially, from other spammers who have access to the same mailing list.

Microsoft introduced a similar feature with Office Outlook 2003.

One of the more important changes is the addition of a "Feedback" option on MSN's menu bar. The feature allows consumers to report problems directly to the Redmond, Wash.-based company. MSN 8 has an option buried in the settings section that enables feedback to be sent automatically, as part of what Microsoft calls its "Customer Experience Improvement Program." When enabled, the feature anonymously collects hardware configuration and tracks software and services usage patterns.

All recent test releases of Microsoft's products--including Office 2003, Harmony (the code name for the next version of Windows XP Media Center Edition) and Windows Messenger 5--encourage testers to participate in the program. Microsoft asserts that the information helps to improve the quality of software. Some of the programs, such as the latest Office 2003 test release, repeatedly prompt testers to sign up for the program.

MSN 8.5 goes a bit further, opening a screen warning: "Dog-food users must opt-in during testing phase" to the program. Internally, Microsoft refers to running beta software on everyday-use computers as "eating your own dog food."

The MSN 8.5 beta also comes with an updated version of Microsoft's instant messaging program for consumers. Separately, Microsoft is testing a new version of Windows Messenger 5, which the company plans to reposition as a tool for business users.

The leak comes in the same week that AOL launched a new version of its own proprietary service called AOL 8.0 Plus. Microsoft and AOL launched new versions of their service within weeks of each other, and both consider the launches significant upgrades.

However, neither upgrade has helped drive significant subscriber growth. Both companies last quarter reported stagnant subscriber numbers, blaming a change in consumer habits toward faster broadband access. AOL and MSN are now focusing on selling their software and content to people who already subscribe to broadband through a different provider.