Aiming to stay relevant, Microsoft is introducing a new look for its MSN.com home page.
Although MSN gets far less attention than the company's Bing or Windows Live efforts, the home page remains an important economic engine for Microsoft's online business, as well as a significant source of search traffic for Bing.
"We believe it's an important asset for Microsoft," said MSN general manager Bob Visse.
The site is still the top portal in about 25 of the 46 markets, with about 600 million unique users globally and 100 million in the U.S, where it trails Yahoo in popularity.
The redesign, which has been in the works for months, bears quite a bit of resemblance to the one that Microsoft had been testing in France.
Microsoft late Tuesday began rolling out the new MSN home page (click for preview), which it says will become widely available in the U.S. early in 2010.
With its new look, the home page has about half as many links as the previous incarnation, focusing instead on a few categories, such as video, news, shopping, and search.
The old site had dozens of text links at the top and bottom of the page for everything from horoscopes to white pages to a free trial of MSN's dial-up Internet service.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see this is a very cluttered and busy site," Visse said of the existing page.
The company has, in the past, tried to make changes that its users saw as too radical, such as a 2007 overhaul of Hotmail that the company was forced to significantly scale back. Visse said he isn't as worried about that, given that users were already complaining that the site was both dated and overstuffed with links.
"We were, frankly, at a point where customers are complaining about the clutter," he said.
Microsoft is also trying to tap into the popularity of social networks, adding a column on the right-hand side that lets users peek at their Windows Live, Twitter, and Facebook feeds, and even update their status or post a tweet. As before, users can also see a preview of their Hotmail in-box.
But it will take its time in jumping on the Web apps bandwagon, with plans to offer several Silverlight-based apps on the right-hand side of the redesigned page at a later date. In the past, MSN users have not customized their pages to a large degree, and so Microsoft is going to take a wait-and-see approach before it decides whether it will roll out more apps than the Windows Live, Twitter, and Facebook apps available at launch.
By contrast, Yahoo, perhaps MSN's largest competitor, has bet the farm on the popularity of Web apps on the home page, redesigning the entire Yahoo experience with that in mind. It's still early, but since the redesign went live Yahoo has seen a 20 percent increase in the amount of time spent on the home page, it said last week.
The company has decided to scrap altogether a more radical overhaul that it tested in Brazil. That site, geared towards Brazil's highly social online population, allowed people to share videos by dragging the video screen onto a contact in one's social network.
"It was too radical, even for that audience," Visse said. "It's not going to ship for a final release."
MSN was among the Microsoft units hit by companywide layoffs earlier this year, but things have stabilized, Visse said.
"I wouldn't say we are growing headcount, but we aren't reducing," he said.
Correction, 6:35 a.m. PDT: This story initially gave an incorrect launch date for the new MSN home page.