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MSN drops newsgroup support

Microsoft's Internet site is dumping support for newsgroup discussions, the latest sign that the pioneering online chat format is being bypassed by the commercial Web.

Microsoft's MSN Internet site is dumping support for newsgroup discussions, the latest sign that the pioneering online chat format is being bypassed by the commercial Web.

An MSN representative said the site is replacing newsgroup discussions, which are currently hosted on the open-ended Usenet network, with other options available on the site. She said the move was sparked by convenience.

"We are removing newsgroups from MSN servers because we now have a better communication vehicle provided by MSN Web Communities--including chat, message boards, email and Web pages," the representative wrote in an email. While newsgroups will no longer be supported on MSN.com, they will still be available at the company's corporate Web site, Microsoft.com.

Marked by freewheeling and often rudely frank discussions on hundreds of specialized topics, newsgroups early on came to embody the Internet's ideal of free and open communication. But with the emergence of the Web and commercial sites, newsgroups have been steadily pushed to the noncommercial fringes.

"Newsgroups are unruly and message boards are easier to convert into a business," said Anya Sacharow, an analyst at Jupiter Communications.

Turning newsgroup chat into e-commerce gold has proven elusive, as companies such as Deja.com and Talkway discovered. Like Microsoft, both turned away from newsgroups after failed attempts to tap them for revenue.

"One of the charms of Usenet is that it's so completely decentralized," said David Ritz, a Usenet advocate. "(Microsoft's) operation is into control. This cannot be accomplished in Usenet."

Word of the closures was first posted on two newsgroups in MSN's Computing Central site.

Peter John Harrison, the MSN Computing Central forum manager in charge of the Bandwidth and Networking forums, said in a posting that excessive unsolicited junk mail, or spam, was the primary reason for the closures--a claim he subsequently retracted in an interview with CNET News.com.

Microsoft denied that the decision to drop newsgroups from MSN was motivated by spam or commercial concerns.

"It was driven by ease of use and integration of services that we can now provide in a better way to consumers," the representative added in an email. "We've found that many more customers have found it easier to use these message boards than the newsgroups."

Analysts said they weren't surprised by the move, noting that Usenet newsgroups haven't caught on with large numbers of new users because there are simpler alternatives.

The Web has dulled Usenet's luster, according to Dan O'Brien, an analyst at Forrester Research. New Internet users coming aboard are now increasingly exposed to Web sites that offer message boards, chat and email as their means for communication and community. Accessing Usenet requires setting one's browser to read postings, something consumers may not want to do.

"Previously, many may have joined newsgroups, but now they can go to a number of travel sites and sports sites and find a thread that has lots of comments that they can jump into," O'Brien said in a previous interview. "There's no need to take the next step and join a newsgroup."

Given the open structure of Usenet, however, it might be too soon to pronounce the end of an era based on the MSN decision.

"I don't think all that many Usenet users and administrators will care one way or the other," said Usenet advocate Ritz.