October 25, 2002
0423 IST

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Microsoft launches MSN 8

Shakti Bhatt in New York

Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of the Microsoft Corporation, presided over a glitzy techno-heavy launch of MSN's latest Internet software, MSN 8, at Central Park, New York on Thursday.

A bemused audience of 300 saw a completely relaxed Gates kick off the proceeding with a question. "Lately, a lot of people have been asking me, Bill, are you serious about this MSN 8 thing? So let me get that question right out of the way."

What followed was a comical ad that featured Gates and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in butterfly costumes on the streets convincing baffled pedestrians the superiority of MSN 8 over the latest version of its rival Internet Service Provider AOL.

Gates, who wore a blue stonewashed shirt sporting his company logo and khaki pants, is currently worth more than $30 billion.

As the brief ad ended to hearty laughs, Gates announced, "We will do whatever it takes."

The company plans to spend a whopping $300 million on its advertising campaign, three times more than the budget of its competitor AOL. Currently MSN -- a blend of Internet access, Web portal and specialised Web browser -- is subscribed by only nine million users compared to AOL's more than 35 million worldwide.

MSN 8 is available to users who can either sign up for its broadband service provided by its partners -- Qwest and Verizon -- priced at $39 or $49, depending on the plan, as against $54.95 charged by AOL or through MSN dial-up Internet Access for at $21.95 per month.

For those using another ISP, the service can be bought through a separate subscription at the rate of $79 a year or $9.95 a month.

The catchphrase of the advertising blitzkrieg is 'It's Better with the Butterfly' and the organisers stayed aggressively faithful to the theme. A huge tent with the butterfly motif was set around the lush area of the Park, where guests were served butterfly-shaped cookies at the entrance.

Around a 100 employees from the company's headquarters in Redmond, Washington were flown in for the event, which followed a week after the launch of AOL 8, which boasted of more than a 100 improvements from its earlier software.

Parul Shah, a product manager at the company, said her PR team has been working overtime to come up with creative ways to reach the customers.

"MSN, which is already the biggest software company in the country, is the underdog of the industry when it comes to ISP. It is not at the top of its game. We started out small and that puts us in a very exciting place right now."

Meanwhile, Gates continued to entertain his guests with a presentation that was infused with a witty, self-deprecating humour.

When explaining the version's advanced spam filter technology on a colossal digital screen the software giant shared with the audience some of the junk mails his personal inbox received. 'Get out of debt today,' said one. "I am not sure they had me profiled quite properly for this one," the billionaire joked.

Jibing at one, which offered 'protection from top law firms for pennies a day for all your frustrations about legal concerns', Gates remarked "Now these guys have done their homework." He was referring to the legal suit that involved MSN in an anti-trust motion.

The three things repeatedly touted about the new edition were better browsing, greater protection from unwanted mails and stricter parental controls. With the new version, it would be possible for customers from two different computers to collectively navigate the Internet through the messaging service.

For demonstrating the flexibility of parental control, Gates called upon Yusuf Mehdi, the vice-president of personal services and business, considered as the third most powerful man at Microsoft Corp.

Mehdi, born to an Indian father and a Malaysian mother, jumped upstage to flaunt the ease with which parents can obtain a detailed activity report of what their kids have been up to online.

The invitation promised a surprise guest and a surprise performer.

The guest was Michael Eisner, the chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Company with whom MSN has partnered to deliver Disney on the new MSN 8 software for a family-oriented online experience, something that has been the strong suit of AOL.

"We use technology to advance fun, entertainment, and good times. MSN is by far the most sophisticated company for robust parental controls," Eisner said.

Singer Lenny Kravitz, the surprise performer for the launch entertained the guests as champagne was rolled on to the dinner tables. "Finally, it is great to see how things went so smoothly," Shah said. "The credit goes to Bill. He is just so hilarious."

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