Productivity Part I
You might find this an odd section heading for an internet client/service, but I felt that was the best way to organize MSN Calendar, MSN Money Plus, Parental Controls, MSN Photos Plus, MSN Learning & Research Plus, MSN Download Manager, and Favorites. They all help users achieve tasks on the web.
MSN users have been using the web-based MSN Calendar for a couple years now. However, as of July 2002, only half a million US users were actually visiting the service, and it hadn’t had an upgrade in quite some time; this all changes with the release of MSN 8 and the accompanying Calendar.msn.com which will no longer be available to non-subscribers in December.
MSN 8 introduces a very compelling calendaring interface which is extremely simple to use, and very pleasing to the eye. For once, it is a JOY (imagine that) to input upcoming appointments and calendar information in the MSN 8 Calendar. It is fairly well-rounded and includes the ability to invite users to a particular event, monitor who has responded to that invite, and set up reminders via MSN Alerts. You can display your calendar in day, week, or month views. In the event you are at a computer that doesn’t have MSN 8 on it, you can login to calendar.msn.com and update it there. The changes will show up in your MSN 8 Calendar when you logon. All in all, a very solid calendaring experience.
However, I do have a few gripes. The tasks section of the calendar is easily forgotten. I have set up tasks to be completed, and have totally forgotten about them. They aren’t shown on the main Calendar page like they are on the web-based version, and do not show up in the Calendar section in the MSN Dashboard. Unless you set up the task to remind you about it, you may forget to check. I vastly prefer the ‘gentle’ notification of upcoming events in the Dashboard, to more email reminders, or even a mobile alert to my phone. That said, the Tasks feature is pretty well fleshed out otherwise. It looks and acts much like Outlook’s tasks feature. Another gripe is the lack of features to expose your calendar or a portion of your calendar to other users. There is no option at this time to export your calendar to the web, or share it with others. I understand this is a future feature, so I won’t complain too much.
Last but not least…I’d love to review the synchronization abilities of MSN Calendar with Outlook, and Pocket PCs/Palms/Smartphones, but alas, MSN IntelliSync was not available at the time of this writing. (I held off as long as I could!)
Personal finance is important to nearly every of-age user out there, and as financial services become increasing interconnected via the internet, software to manage your finances via the internet will become increasingly important. This is MSN’s first strike at the personal finance software arena. Unlike Microsoft Money which entered the market long after Quicken was a leader, MSN Money Plus hits a number of firsts right out of the starting gate. I won’t be able to address every feature in MSN Money Plus, as that would be a big review in its own right, so I’ll hit the basics.
MSN Money Plus visibly draws on work done on Microsoft Money. Anyone familiar with the latter’s tools & data visualization capabilities will feel at home here. MSN Money Plus is tightly integrated with MSN 8, so you won’t have to download active x components and the like to view your personal finance data in rich ways. Simply fill in the required financial information, and MSN Money Plus can do the rest. If you aren’t one to intimately track your finances, you can at least keep your balances at a quick glance away by adding that option to your MSN Dashboard. This proved indispensable about a week ago when I was inadvertently charged multiple times for *one* purchased movie ticket. Instead of $9.00, I was charged $63.00. I know I went with a bunch of friends, but I surely didn’t buy all their tickets. I wasn’t drunk. ;-) The next day, I noticed a drop in my spending account on my MSN Dashboard. I was able to call up Visa, and my bank, Washington Mutual and get it resolved. Otherwise, I likely wouldn’t have noticed the error until I got a statement. That experience sold me on having constant access to my financial information.
The software to manage and track your bills and upcoming bills is pretty simple, and straightforward. As a part of your subscription, you have access to the standard option of MSN Bill Pay, with the ability to upgrade to the premium version which allows you to pay any bill via the internet. It saves your data for up to 18 months, and is completely accessible offline; MSN understanding that a majority of subscribers, at least initially, will be dial-up users.
Having software with multiple users logging on with separate accounts presents all sorts of complexities, but MSN Money Plus handles that with ease. Account holders can invite other users on that same machine to share access to financial data. So two people can have completely different email addresses, and accounts yet share and interact with the same financial data. This can be useful for parents who want to start to let their child manage their finances while keeping an eye on those same finances and working with their child on it.
Admittedly, I am not a parent, nor know anyone that would be in the position to use parental controls so I am not well versed in this area. However, I did give them a whirl, and tried to put myself in a parent’s position.
Right off the bat, the controls that MSN gives parents on what their children can access on the MSN network is impressive. You can restrict who they talk to via email and messenger, you can restrict what kind of music they listen to, what MSN Groups they visit, what topics they visit on MSN Learning & Research and quite a bit more.
What is impressive about these controls is the flexibility it gives both the children and the parents. If a child wants to access a particular site that is blocked, he/she can automatically send an email to the parent asking to unlock access to that site. A weekly activity report of a child(s) actions are mailed to the parent…it is a pretty extensive list of who the child talked to, what site they visited, and for how long. The one glaring missing link is a lack of timestamps on this information. Parents may want to know *precisely* when their child tried to visit playboy.com so they can be more aware. Knowledge is power, right? Of course, the bottleneck in this is that if the parent is not an active internet user then this will fail in that particular instance. Hopefully, these very capable tools will spur parents to feel at ease with them and use them to their advantage.