February 9, 2006 6:25 PM PST

Nicol to 'bring out the soul' of MSN

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John Nicol was on sabbatical with his teenage daughter delivering computers to schools in Uganda last September when he got a phone call from a top honcho at MSN asking him to be general manager of Microsoft's portal.

Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of information services at MSN, told him the company "wanted to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build this network into what it should be," Nicol said Thursday in an interview with CNET News.com that marked the public announcement of his new role. "My first question was, 'Who is this, really?'"

John Nicol
John Nicol,
general manager, MSN

Soon Nicol, previously head of MSNBC and involved in MSN's TV strategy, was back on a plane to Microsoft's hometown of Redmond, Wash., ready to help transform MSN into an entertainment powerhouse. He faced a challenging task, given the competition from market leader Yahoo and from Time Warner's America Online unit, which was pushing its remodeled portal hard.

MSN, with nearly 60 percent reach among U.S. Web surfers in December, is ranked second among portals, behind Yahoo, which has 68 percent active reach, according to Nielsen/NetRatings.

"It's not a complete overhaul, in the sense that we have a solid foundation with many users," he said. "What you will see permeate the site is a whole new personality built around video and user-generated content."

Nicol, who rejoined Microsoft in November to head up MSN, said he will work to "bring out the soul" of the portal.

Faced with increasing competition from other portals and the threat that Google and its hosted services pose to desktop software, Microsoft announced a reorganization in September that moved MSN into its main product unit.

In November, Microsoft announced Windows Live, a set of Internet-based personal services, such as e-mail, blogging and instant messaging.

Meanwhile, MSN pushed into entertainment and original content in the 1990s but has been backing away from that in recent years, selling online magazine Slate in 2003 and selling a controlling stake in the MSNBC cable channel late last year.

Now the portal will look to partners and users for material.

"Our mission is to be the best at anticipating what our viewers most want to see, read, interact with on the Internet, and allow them to participate in its creation," Nicol said.

Like the others, MSN is planning to appeal to users' interest in video entertainment and user-generated content, and to offer more content in niche areas like money, lifestyle and sports, tying everything more closely together, he said.

As further proof that Microsoft is ramping up its entertainment strategy, the company announced two promotions within MSN earlier this week. Rob Bennett, project unit manager at MSN Video, Movies and TV, was promoted to general manager of entertainment and video services for MSN. Joe Michaels was promoted to director of business development of entertainment and video services for MSN, from senior business development manager at MSN Video.

"Microsoft wants me to build this into what we think a media network should be," Nicol said. "I don't think we have a good coherent personality today, and we don't have the best navigation tools to link content."

For instance, someone watching a Dead Can Dance music video will eventually be able to easily see news on the group, buy their CD, view photos and see what other fans have been saying about them.

However, the distinction between MSN and Windows Live remains unclear, said Matt Rosoff, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft.

"I'm not sure how much priority Microsoft is giving original content versus how much priority they're giving Windows Live," Rosoff said. "My guess is that Microsoft has said we've got these high-traffic services, and we want to better monetize those under Windows Live, and then we've still got these content sites, and they gave John Nicol a mandate to do something new with them or increase traffic to them."

Michael Gartenberg at JupiterResearch had a different take.

"MSN is evolving into a portal to provide different kinds of content and services that are differentiated from what I get from Windows Live," he said. "It's an opportunity for them to bolster and update some of the services under one strong brand, which is Windows, and use that as an opportunity to drive the relationship Microsoft has with the desktop going forward."

Nicol said he is planning a big public launch for the new MSN later this year but expects to roll out some sections and features earlier, like a new travel section, which will come within the next few weeks.

"We'll announce a new travel section where we go from what has been essentially a booking page to something more expansive with research and lots of user-generated content throughout the network," he said. "Later on, we will expand it to offer the ability to upload photos to our user base and more video content, including user-created video," he said.

And, no, the company is not changing the name to MSN Media Network, as was reported recently, he said. "That was started because I've often referred to (MSN) internally as a media network," he said. "There will be no name change."

See more CNET content tagged:
MSN, business development, portal, general manager, entertainment


Join the conversation!
Add your comment
Force Fed
People only use MSN because it is force fed to anyone using IE. Any
mistyped URL leads to it. If given the choice from the start, I believe
Personalized Google would dominate. No Ads, free, better email
tied in, better search, better customization. Why would anyone
want MSN?
Posted by wpholmes (38 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Not comparing like with like...
Whilst I agree with you that MSN does well from being the default
home page in IE, arguing that Google would be a more popular
portal is a strange comment; mainly as Google isn't a portal, it's a
search engine. Whilst I don't like or use MSN and Yahoo!, if it's a
portal you're looking for (and that's what the article was about)
then Google wouldn't fulfil your requirements.
Posted by ross brown--2008 (57 comments )
Link Flag
Absolutely true. These guys have a captive default audience -
it's the only thing that floats msn's boat. Otherwise they'd be
dead... and what a pretty world that would be.
Posted by dlgeezer (13 comments )
Link Flag
Bringing Out the Soul of MSN...
...That's some sort of oxymoron, no? And to rely on a guy named
of American currency? We should all think hard about these
Posted by ScrUU (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
I didn't know MSN had a soul.....
.... but then I don't think that I have been on the MSN web site more
than twice in the past five years. Too many better alternatives
elsewhere for me.
Posted by Earl Benser (4310 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Touche Earl!
The Soul of MSN from the souless Microsith & Drone PC Troopers?

Posted by Llib Setag (951 comments )
Link Flag
Colored butterflies are cool
MSN? Isn't that the funny colored butterfly website?

Actually a butterfly doesn't live very long. They look good for about 1 day and then it's game over.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
Link Flag
Why MSN falls short.
Look, the guy in the picture has a musatche. Need I say more?
Posted by jbell06 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
MSN butterfly thing
MSN? Isn't that the funny colored butterfly website?

Actually a butterfly doesn't live very long. They look good for about 1 day and then it's game over.
Posted by t8 (3716 comments )
Reply Link Flag
To "Bring out the Soul"
one has to presuppose its existence
Posted by jmmejzz (107 comments )
Reply Link Flag
To "Bring out the Soul"...
one has to presuppose its existence
Posted by jmmejzz (107 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Former head of MSNBC lowest ratings
of any news cable channel today. Barely 1% of people watch some of it's shows compared to millions watching other shows on competitor's news programs.

So THIS is who you choose to save a web portal? Greeaaatttt.
Posted by NeedFiction (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
"New" MSN
Perhaps this is not the biggest problem, but--it has always seemed to me that a network backed by MS would have the best server network on the planet. Instead, I have always found that the most negative thing about MSN was its sometimes incredibly slow delivery. Yahoo and Ebay, as well dozens of small players, can post their web pages in a fraction of the time it takes to open an MSN window.
Posted by (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag

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