Kara Swisher

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New MSN Homepage Exits Beta, Set to Be Released to All of U.S.

MSN, which launched a beta version of a radical new homepage design in November, is releasing it to all its 100 million monthly U.S. customers within the next two weeks.

The wide rollout by the Microsoft (MSFT) portal will include its most significant online marketing program yet on sites such as the Hulu video and Pandora radio services–although it won’t cost nearly as much as the $100 million the tech giant is spending to hawk its Bing search service.

While the new MSN homepage is not radically different than the preview version Microsoft has been testing on 10 percent (and, more recently, 25 percent) of its user base, after consumer and testing feedback, it includes: A larger search box; more local features, such as hyperlocal Twitter feeds; and more multimedia content, including in-line videos.

“We have gotten a lot of great response to the new site, so we think everyone should be using it,” said Scott Moore, MSN’s U.S. executive producer. “We’re particularly encouraged about how usage of light and medium users has grown.”

Presumably that’s because the new MSN homepage has been drastically simplified, with a white, cleaner look that calls to mind the design ethos of Apple (AAPL).

I suppose if you can’t beat them…

The launch was the first major upgrade of the MSN main page in a decade, part of an overhaul the software giant has been doing throughout its money-losing online services division to spur innovation.

That includes the launch of Bing last May, which has been a relative success for Microsoft, adding a small amount of search market share and, more important, some much needed respect to its long-beleaguered consumer Web efforts.

Whether putting the new MSN in front of all its consumer will work or not remains an open question. Together, MSN and Windows Live have about 100 million unique monthly visitors, putting Microsoft typically third behind Google (GOOG) and Yahoo (YHOO).

Here’s the official blog post from Microsoft, as well as more videos that you want to see of MSN senior execs in Microsoft-made interviews about the changes:

New MSN Homepage offers search, news, local and social networking–all in one place

Today is an exciting milestone for MSN. We are beginning the launch of our new homepage to our customers in the US. The new MSN homepage offers search, news, local and social networking–all in one place. We encourage you to try the new homepage today and learn more about the many cool features.

Since the preview of our new homepage began in November, we’ve been very busy gathering over 70,000 pieces of customer feedback and introducing over 30 updates in our quest to deliver the best homepage to stay in the know.

Here are a few things we learned and new features we introduced to address customer feedback:

Bing, Bing, and more Bing. We’ve seen double-digit increases in Bing search queries coming from the new homepage. People wanted even more Bing, so we:

· Increased the prominence of the Bing search box to make it easy for you to search from the MSN homepage.

· Added a new TrendWatch feature to highlight the day’s top movers on Twitter.

· Increased the prominence of Popular Searches, where our editorial team highlights the most interesting and topical searches of the day.

· Increased editorial programming of search-related content, including videos and images.

· And, we’re currently testing a Search History feature so you can more easily find information you typically search for.

Local is a home-run. We knew people craved local information, but we’ve been surprised by how quickly our local offering has taken off. The MSN Local module on the homepage is driving over 50% more traffic to our new local offering, MSN Local Edition. This site already has over 9 million unique users every month, making it the #4 online newspaper in terms of unique users, and the leader for page views. MSN Local Edition, which uniquely covers the entire country across 42,000 zip codes, continues to innovate, introducing new features like:

· Hyper-local Tweets, which uses the power of Bing to highlight tweets from your location

· My Cities lets you personalize MSN Local and save up to 3 cities to follow–making it easy to keep up with your friends or family across the entire country.

· With partnerships with NBC Local Media and Hearst Television, MSN Local Edition now offers 3,000 news video clips a week across 36 local markets.

You love images and news. The main module on the new homepage, which features a prominent image, receives over 50% more clicks than our original homepage. We’re continuing to offer more multi-media on the new homepage–including launching the availability of in-line HD video today. Now you can watch HD video in-line on the MSN homepage with minimal buffering. We also learned:

· The design of the new page was largely positively received, but we heard from some MSN loyalists that they missed our traditional blue background. So, we tested many different versions of our design–including an entirely blue background–and it turns out most people prefer the clean, white background we introduced with the preview–with a touch of blue highlighting the top of the page.

· The tabs on the new homepage allow us to highlight different categories of news and many different headlines with less clutter–we learned you love lots of news headlines to choose from, so we added more tabs and made the navigation easier so you can easily access the wealth of information on MSN.

· Social networking is handy to have on the homepage. Most of you appreciate the all-in-one offering of the new MSN homepage–including the ability to check your Hotmail, Messenger and favorite social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, right from your MSN homepage. We realized we could make social networking even easier, so now our social network module defaults to the social network tab you use most frequently (Facebook, for example).

These are just a few of the many themes we learned and have been working on over the last few months.

Because we want to ensure every customer has a great first experience, we’re taking our time to roll it out, but all of our 100 million customers in the US will have the new homepage within the next few weeks. Today marks an important milestone for us, but we’re going to keep working hard to hear your feedback and deliver more great experiences across MSN.

Bob Visse (general manager, MSN Product Management Group):

Cyrus Krohn (director of online services programming, MSN):

Erik Jorgensen (corporate vice president, MSN):

Scott Moore (U.S. executive producer, MSN):

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik