MSN drops parental controls for paying customers

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

MSN Premium, Microsoft’s suite of paid Web services, is dropping some parental controls and recommending that its users switch to the company’s free Windows Live equivalents instead.

If this pattern continues, MSN Premium will be left with absolutely no services that aren’t provided free in Windows Live or Microsoft Windows itself, a situation I described in a Jan. 3 article.

E-mail and IM blocking features lost in MSN

MSN Premium dropped the ability to block e-mail and instant messages from certain contacts, beginning on Jan. 8. The announcement came from Microsoft in a letter to customers of MSN Premium, many of whom pay $9.95 per month for the service. (An unspecified number of other customers receive MSN Premium as part of a bundle when purchasing Net access from an Internet service provider.)

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In a boldfaced paragraph, the letter urged customers, “If you want to continue to restrict e-mail or messenger contacts via Parental Controls, we recommend installing Family Safety from Windows Live™ One Care™.”

The letter goes on to state that Family Safety from Windows Live OneCare is free and that it “will become your new parental control application.”

The communique also provides installation instructions for installing the Windows Live Family Safety service and concludes, “we apologize for this inconvenience.”

This is the second time in less than a year that MSN Premium has scaled back features for its paying customers in favor of versions of Windows Live, which are free and have only minor feature differences. Last spring, MSN Hotmail was “upgraded” to Windows Live Hotmail, as Microsoft Product Manager Nick White put it in the official Vista blog.

Microsoft continues to charge paying subscribers for MSN Premium, even as the company replaces features in MSN with free Windows Live equivalents. In most cases, features that still exist within MSN Premium are available for free from Windows Live or are built into Windows itself, as I reported in the Jan. 3 issue of Windows Secrets.

In response to that article, a Microsoft representative made the following statement, published in a blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
  • “While Windows Live includes many comparable services, MSN Premium includes software as part of the subscription, including Encarta Premium, and offers additional functionality such as download manager and SpySweeper. Many customers are also attracted to MSN Premium’s advertisement-free experience, while Windows Live services are ad-funded.”
The similarities between the paid MSN Premium service and free services available elsewhere from Microsoft were cataloged on Jan. 3 in a table, with links to let readers compare the features for themselves.

For example, Windows Live provides no precise equivalent for Encarta Premium, but users can search for scholarly articles and academic publications using the free Windows Live Academic Search beta.

Microsoft also offers a free version of Encarta online. According to a description of the differences on the Encarta site, MSN Encarta Premium is similar to the free version, except for the omission of advertising and the addition of “literature guides, project planners, and the multimedia center.”

Neither version can compare in popularity with the free Wikipedia site, which outpulled Encarta 3,400 to 1 in user visits, according to a Hitwise study last year.

Microsoft’s paid services do carry advertising

The Microsoft statement also raises the question of advertising. It’s true that free Windows Live accounts display an advertising banner at the top of each Hotmail page, and the online version of Windows Live appends a text ad to the bottom of each e-mail message.

However, those who use the free, “desktop” version of Windows Live Mail see no advertisements in the interface. Nor does mail sent from the desktop version include text ads, in my tests. (The desktop version, in one omission, does not support the calendar feature that’s found online.)

Advertising is also present in Microsoft’s instant-messaging service. In the newest version of Messenger (dubbed Windows Live Messenger), both paying MSN Premium users and nonpaying users see banner ads in the main window and text ads in the chat windows.

Windows XP users can avoid these ads by continuing to use the free version of Messenger that’s built into the operating system. Users of the newer Windows Live Messenger may be able to use third-party software to remove the ads, as explained by the My Digital Life site.

Windows Secrets reader Michael D. Hensley points out one benefit that MSN Premium does provide over the no-charge alternatives. The free Outlook Connector, as described on a Microsoft.com page, allows you to receive Hotmail messages in Microsoft Outlook — but only MSN Premium lets you synchronize calendar entries you may create in the two products. If that’s worth $9.95 per month to you, I say go for it.

A Jan. 4 Softpedia article on the controversy says the advantages of MSN Premium that the Microsoft statement cited are “subtle differences.” Conceding that arguments can be made for either MSN Premium or Windows Live, the article, by Softpedia technology news editor Marius Oiaga, concludes:
  • “At the same time, MSN Premium, in the context of the much fresher Windows Live Hotmail, is nothing but an outdated service, whose faults will end up surpassing its benefits. And MSN Premium has quite a few faults, starting with the aging browsing client and ending up with the limited amount of storage.”
Today, MSN Premium is lopping off features, from instant messaging to mail to parental controls, and replacing them with free Windows Live equivalents without upgrading its own offerings. If this practice continues, it’ll become even more difficult for Microsoft to make the case that MSN Premium customers should continue to pay for services the company is offering elsewhere for free.

Readers Don Dewiel and Michael Hensley will each receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice for contributing to this story. Send us your tips via the Windows Secrets contact page.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the magazine’s Here’s How section.
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2008-01-17: