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MSN navigates real world

Tired of jumping from Web site to Web site, looking for that great travel deal? Despite a crowded field, Microsoft thinks it's got a solution for you with Expedia, on online travel service that's part of the new MSN.

Tired of jumping from Web site to Web site, looking for that great travel deal? Despite a crowded field, Microsoft (MSFT) thinks it's got a solution for you.

Microsoft today officially rolled out Expedia, an online travel service that's part of the new Microsoft Network.

The service, which will be free to anyone on the Web as part of the MSN strategy to keep commerce-based sites open to all Netizens, promises "the same comprehensive reservation system used by professional travel agents."

If you want to book a plane to Hawaii, for instance, you can find a flight by fare, by airline, or via a number of other options. Then you can find a hotel, and check out a map to see if it's located next to the beach or a garbage dump. The service also allows users to view pictures of hotel properties, if they have been submitted.

Expedia also offers editorial content to help travelers make decisions. Microsoft executives have said that Netizens, while generally shy of e-commerce, have embraced travel sites wholeheartedly.

"Travel is an ideal Internet business," said Rich Bartron, group product manager. Travel works, he said, because "it is an electronic good. It's a very big business; 200 million airline tickets were sold in the US last year." Expedia had sold close to $200,000 worth of travel goods in the beta test, he said.

The move into a new online business comes while Microsoft Network participant Slate, the political magazine that launched June 24, will delay its migration to paid subscriptions due to problems with its billing system, according to Rogers Weed, Slate's publisher.

Moreover, competition is stiff, with travel services such as America Online and Preview Travel already up and running. In addition, buying tickets online still represents a fraction of the travel tickets that are sold. Many consumers prefer dealing with a travel agent in person, and some worry about online security with their credit cards.

Ron Pernick, a spokesman for Preview Travel said he welcomed the competition. "It opens the marketplace to more competition and brings more consumers in," he said. "There's enough room for all different players. It's good to add strong competitions to a growing industry."

Meanwhile, Slate's move means readers will have another 90 days--till February, when they'll have to cough up $19.95 per year--to get the magazine for free on the Web, he said.

"The longer it's free, the harder it is to move to a paid status," Weed said. "That's why I wish we were going to paid schedule. I'm disappointed," he said. But, he added, "we are committed to a business model that relies on paid subscriptions. I think overall the magazine is in a really good state. Overall, I feel pretty upbeat about where we're headed."