The Active Network


Microsoft Develops Mars...MSN Mars

Posted By: Matthew Sabean
24th February 2000
ActiveWin/Betanews/Microsoft/John Dvorak

Microsoft has begun development on next-generation Internet software, code-named 'Mars', for its MSN online service. Secretly in the works for months, Microsoft refused to acknowledge the existence of Mars until ZDNet's John C. Dvorak announced the software in a recent column. BetaNews and ActiveWin have combined efforts to give you an inside look at the new software.

Over the last few months, Mars has been the subject of many false rumors due to confusion surrounding the software's purpose after it was initially announced on ActiveWin. Many people assumed it to be the upcoming Internet Explorer 5.5, Dial Up Networking add-ons, or even a new user interface technology for Windows. However, Microsoft representatives spoke to BetaNews and cleared the air this week, stating "Mars is a codename for a project designed to simplify and enhance the Internet experience for MSN users." When asked for further information regarding features and release dates, Microsoft told BetaNews and ActiveWin, "It is too early to give details, but we look forward to doing so soon."

Mars is best described as client software for MSN Internet Access, much like AOL offers. Other than slight updates and playing version catch-up with AOL, Mars will be Microsoft's first real software for the service since MSN 2.5 hit the streets back in 1997. In fact, Mars closely resembles MSN Program Viewer 2.0, from the days of MSN Shows. The program viewer was primarily a Web browser powered by an Internet Explorer software engine, with an MSN service-oriented interface, described by users simply as "IE with different menus and graphics."

This move comes as no surprise to those following the IT industry. With MSN losing as many users per day as it was gaining, and AOL touting 12 times as many members, Microsoft launched a million dollar ad campaign to promote the service last week. The only next logical step is to recreate what has made AOL so popular - the software. But has Microsoft successfully done the job with Mars?

Mars opens with a simple login screen asking the user to click their picture to sign on. Boasting the new "friendly" MSN butterfly, the screen looks like something you would see in WebTV, giving a feeling of clear readability and simplicity. Unfortunately, as Dvorak so boldy states, the feeling quickly disappears.

MSN Mars - Log In

The following 'Welcome' screen demonstrates the first thing the user will see when logged into the service. It is both colorful and cluttered, sticking everything from instant messages to the Windows Media Player all on one page. While this may not be too confusing to the experienced user, the login screen seemed to target computer beginners who would not feel comfortable using the current Mars Welcome screen.

MSN Mars - Welcome Screen

The Welcome screen also shows the first five online buddies from the MSN Messenger Service, however users have to open the full program to see them all, wasting space and defeating the purpose of including them on the welcome screen in the first place.

The main part of the screen 'folds up' when viewing a Web page, as shown in the following screen shot. Despite taking up space that could be utilized for browsing the Web, the channel bar to the right remains on-screen at all times. As Dvorak told BetaNews, "This makes the desktop perpetually look as if you had one of those free PCs where you are inundated with ads and pitches. Only this PC isn't free!"

Whether MSN Mars will be released as MSN Internet Access 6.0 is yet to be seen, but with version 5.1 debuting next month for Windows 2000 users, there is a strong chance Microsoft has something planned for the next big release.

MSN Mars - UI

Perhaps even more intriguing is the possibility that the technology behind Mars will be incorporated into Microsoft's future operating systems. The now canned Neptune, which made its first and only appearance to testers late last year, contains many similarities to MSN Mars (Shown in the bottom picture). For example, the HTML-based Neptune startup screen looks strikingly like the one for MSN Mars.

Early Old Neptune Image

All in all, Mars is a step in the right direction for the software giant, but will endure a long development phase if it is to compete with the likes of AOL. A Microsoft spokesperson told BetaNews and ActiveWin, "the early prototype will massively change."

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