Ancient geeks: a short history of MSN

Cleaning up a bunch of old junk recently, I came across a cheque from 1995, from MSN. Dunno if anybody remembers, but MSN was originally not a web site, it was a proprietary online service, with its own set of dialup Points Of Presence (locally called OnAustralia), and its own media standards. They launched it with Windows 95 in August 1995, and they’d obviously planned it in the year or two beforehand, before the web became popular.

(Despite later claims, Windows 95 didn’t come with a web browser as standard. You originally had to buy it as an extra in the Microsoft Plus package.)

Before launch, they approached numerous content providers to get them to put stuff on the MSN network. It was pretty clunky, but they included the option to put content on that one could charge a Per View amount for.

I happened to be working in Online Training at the time, heard about this venture, and wondered if I should sign up and put some of my Toxic Custard stuff online. Since they were waiving all publishers’ fees, I thought I’d give it a go, and got my mate Brian (who wrote a set of stories called Rocket Roger in uni) to have a go too.

We put some stuff up for free, some for a small fee for viewing, under the banner name of “In Your Face”. I think it had an icon which looked like a Windows Folder, but with a face that was sticking its tongue out.

In summary, it was a complete waste of time. It was not a case of “Built it, and they will come”. Hardly anybody looked at the free stuff, let alone the paid stuff — we made $6.73 all up. By the time MSN launched, the web was taking off, nobody was interested in paying for content. Not to mention that the standard for presenting anything remotely clever media-wise was horrible — a hideous thing called MediaView, which presentation-wise was similar to the web, but absolute murder to write anything in.

It was just a few short months later in December 1995 when Bill Gates made his famous U-turn — the realisation that the Internet really was the bees knees, it was a bandwagon they should definitely be jumping on.

They dumped all of MSN’s proprietary side. MediaView morphed into something not quite so hideous called Blackbird, which then got renamed as Internet Studio, which then died a very well-deserved death. The OnAustralia dialups were given to Telstra and became the basis of Bigpond, they ramped up developement on Internet Explorer (thus starting the browser wars in which IE eventually triumphed over Netscape), they re-engineered MSN to be a number of web sites, and eventually bought Hotmail to sit in the centre of it.

With the Internet (and particularly the Web) as pervasive as it is now, looking back, it’s hard to believe that Microsoft was genuinely clueless enough to launch a proprietary online service in the face of the Internet (arguably I was just as clueless to bother to put content onto it), or even to launch a major version of Windows as late as 1995 with no built-in Web browser.

In these enlightened times, of course, nobody believes a word of it.

And we never did cash that cheque.

In Your Face logo

Read on for some more geeky artefacts

On Australia plug

In Your Face information, circa January 1996 (RTF file, 12K)

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