Microsoft will initiate its first big push against Internet rival America Online (AOL) later this month when it releases the final version of its MSN Explorer software--code-named "Mars"--and launches an array of new MSN services on the Web. According to a report in TechWeb, which is based on internal Microsoft marketing documents, the company will spend over a billion dollars promoting these new services and features, which include high-speed DSL and satellite Internet access, lower-cost dial-up services, as well as a number better integrated Web sites. The marketing document says that Microsoft will "drive millions of MSN Internet Access signups in the U.S. and convert the hundreds of millions of visitors to MSN.Com into 'valuable users' by creatively promoting the depth of MSN services on \[the Microsoft\] network."

MSN Explorer has seen two public beta releases so far this year and the company hopes to use its simplified, integrated user interface as the front-end for its upcoming .NET products, including future versions of Windows, WebTV, and other Web-enabled devices. Microsoft's MSN service has gone through a number of major changes since its difficult birth in 1995: The company originally released MSN as a proprietary online service that was to have competed head-to-head with CompuServe and AOL. But with the rise of the Internet, MSN was morphed into a Web portal with an integrated Windows front-end, but early MSN content sites such as Mungo Park were eventually dropped because of their expense. Microsoft retrenched and relaunched MSN as an inexpensive alternative to AOL, with an integrated set of Web sites: It's sixth major stab at an MSN front-end, MSN Explorer, will be tied very closely to the MSN-branded Web sites, offering users a cohesive, AOL-like experience.

Today, MSN is one of the top destinations on the Web, though most usage polls place it below AOL and Yahoo. According to PC Data, Yahoo has about 59 million unique visitors per month, compared to 49 million for AOL and 43.5 million for MSN. Critics note, however, that Microsoft's successes are due largely to the fact that the MSN Web site is the default home page for users of Internet Explorer, which is bundled for free with Windows.

As sales of Microsoft's core products, such as Windows and Office, slow down, the company is looking to rejuvenate the bottom line it's .NET initiative, a sweeping new set of Web-based services. And as the friendly face to Microsoft on the Web, MSN obviously plays a key role in this goal. Microsoft has spent a considerable amount of time and money educating users and developers about this change over the past few months, and that will likely continue until its first core .NET product, Windows.NET ("Whistler") is released late next year