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Microsoft today is officially renaming its Internet access service as part of the company's continuing effort to break down its firewalls and turn itself into an Internet portal.

Now known simply as MSN or the Microsoft Network--officially called "MSN Premier"--the service will now be named "MSN Internet Access." The name change follows Microsoft's move two months ago to label its portal effort, previously dubbed Microsoft Start, to MSN.

Along with the change, Microsoft is launching an upgrade of the service, to include access for those with 56-kpbs modems. The service is only available to those who use the Windows 95 operating system or better.

The announcement is the latest move in the deconstruction of the strategy that the company began nearly two years ago when it launched MSN 2.0, its Web-based Internet service.

The idea then was to provide its members with many extras, such as chat, message boards, and game shows, that would be available only to those who paid the premium for membership.

The plan also included "free" services for the public that were mostly based on e-commerce.

But about a year ago, with so-called portals in their relative infancy, Microsoft began shifting its strategy, slowly moving items from behind the members-only firewall onto the open Net.

The company was banking, along with the rest of the Net, that the real money will lie in advertising and e-commerce, not in charging for access. Now the idea is to compete with other top portals, such as Lycos, Excite, Yahoo, and America Online by trying to lure Net users onto their sites, where users would then receive marketing and pitches to buy online.

All those in the portal battle have been gobbling up companies that can provide specialty services aimed to lure and keep Net users, such as free email. Microsoft, for instance, bought Hotmail, giving it the largest free emailing service on the Net.

Microsoft also has learned that contrary to what executives thought when they launched MSN 2.0, Netizens are not particularly interested in game shows and other items that emulate TV. Instead, they tend to primarily use the Net to get quick information and to communicate.

Toward that end, MSN has dropped its shows and put the other material, such as bulletin boards, onto the Net. Chat also is migrating there. In fact, besides dial-up access, customers paying $19.95 a month get little else, except a free subscription to Slate and discounts for other services for which Microsoft charges, such as investment services.

There had been some industry speculation that Microsoft would drop dial-up Internet access, which it gets from UUNet altogether. But at least for now, the company will stay in the dial-up business as another way to lure people into the Microsoft Web.

"Internet access is one way for Microsoft to have a member of relationship with the customer," said Janet Angell, group product manager with MSN. "Member relationships are very important."

Microsoft has refused for about a year to release membership numbers. However, many of the larger ISPs use dial-up access simply as a way to retain customers to whom they can then target with advertising and marketing information.

Today's renaming of the site also follows Microsoft's move two months ago to label its portal effort MSN.

 

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