Start.com is a peek of what Microsoft has planned for its competitor to offerings from Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. All three provide options for aggregating news, weather, sports, entertainment and other web content, as well as RSS feeds. The personal homepages package the various content into modules that can be arranged by the user. Internet portals use customizable homepages as a way to entice consumers into making their sites the starting point for surfing the web. Google, Yahoo and MSN offer search engines, which are major vehicles for online advertising, and shopping services.
Charlene Li, analyst for Forrester Research, said Wednesday that Microsoft currently offers a personal homepage called My MSN, which lets users organize content from the entertainment portal. Start.com, however, includes the option of adding content from anywhere on the Web.
"It's a much more open place than My MSN," Li said.
Li sees the new service as leading to a possible re-branding and re-positioning of My MSN in the market.
In offering personal homepages, Google has been playing catch up with its service, which is behind Yahoo and Microsoft, Li said.
"Google is a bit behind in get users on its service," Li said.
Microsoft's latest offering, as well as those from Google and Yahoo, includes a web search component. Search, which has become a major attraction for online advertisers, is a market that Microsoft entered behind Google and Yahoo.
"Microsoft was late in determining the real value of Internet search, so it's playing catch up," Robert Lerner, analyst for Current Analysis, said.
Nevertheless, Microsoft, which has one of the strongest brands on the web and lots of cash to spend, is quickly turning MSN into a major player in the competition for online advertising.
"I believe Microsoft has got these other companies worried," Lerner said.
Start.com, for now, offers only the baseline features for a personal homepage. Consumers can chose information from a sidebar listing content providers in a variety of categories, or add RSS feeds from other sites. Start.com only works on Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but support for the Mozilla Foundation's open-source Firefox browser is planned.
Microsoft announced the availability through MSN Search's WebLog Saturday. In leading people to the site, Microsoft first promotes its "Instant Answers" feature on MSN Search by requiring users to seek the answer to five questions, a tactic that's "bizarre and annoying," Gary Price of SearchEngineWatch.com, said in his weblog.
Microsoft has not said how Start.com fits into its search strategy. However, Steve Rider of MSN hinted in his weblog that it was more than just "aggregating the best of what you want on the web, like bookmarks, RSS feeds and news."
"It also means that you should be able to write your own modules that you can have with you whenever and wherever, even on your phone, and you should be able to share them with your friends too," Rider said. "But this is the subject of another post."