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MSN's Enterprise Ambitions

Microsoft's MSN, with its lifestyle articles and ad-supported tools like Messenger and Spaces, seems worlds away from the company's buttoned-up enterprise server business. But the two are steadily converging behind the scenes, with a plan to link them via Exchange.

Executives at Microsoft's Financial Analysts Meeting, held Thursday in Redmond, Wash., said the company wants to extend Web-based services such as Hotmail to the enterprise.

Microsoft collaboration tools already look a lot like today's MSN. Microsoft Office Communicator, the recommended client for Microsoft Office Live Communications Server 2005, offers the ability to set up and define rules for contacts (buddy lists); see whether contacts are available (Messenger); share documents and files (Spaces); and launch video- or audio-conferences from within applications (Messenger).

At the same time, MSN services are getting enterprise-grade security and functionality. In a demo at for the analysts, Blake Irving, vice president of MSN communication services, showed off Windows OneCare, a system of indicators that lets people know whether those they connect with are practicing safe computing. When one person updates a shared file, it's saved to the other person's desktop over an encrypted channel.

"I might not actually instant message with anyone," Irving said. "That contact list might be there solely for the purpose of sharing files with other people."

Irving demoed a new version of Web mail being tested internally by a few thousand people that looks more like Outlook, with a list of folders down the left-hand side, previews and contact lists. (The stripped-down interface also was reminiscent of Google's gmail -- without ads.) The application includes built-in sender permissions, so that, for example, the user is alerted when receiving email from an unknown sender and asked to decide whether to accept or block the e-mail. Clicking on a name automatically adds it to the contact list.

"I can create an entire address book that would roam with me anyplace," Irving said.

That "address book in the cloud" is part of Microsoft's vision of "my stuff" available anywhere. Yusuf Mehdi, senior vice president of MSN, said the company is moving toward seamless integration across all Microsoft assets, including the Xbox game console, the PC and Office software.

While software-on-demand companies like salesforce.com and Mitrix offer Web-based software accessed via browser, Microsoft has a different idea: There still will be "my software and devices," according to Mehdi. "We're betting on the client for a rich experience and better safety," he said.

But users' software and devices will connect with information stored on servers, as well as their social networks and work teams.

For example, an executive could choose to expose her Outlook calendar to her spouse's MSN services.

Mehdi told analysts that over the past six years, MSN has stored more than 8 billion contacts developed from registrations for Hotmail, Messenger and Spaces in a "clearing house" database. "It's the most valuable asset on the Internet," he said. And it's now attached to the MSN network, where it's used to let people know when a buddy has posted something new to a Spaces blog.

Irving told internetnews.com that the contacts clearing house can be thought of as an active directory connecting to MSN's contacts storehouse. Microsoft plans to build in permission levels and create a bridge between the clearing house and enterprise data. "You're not just a person at home, you're a person at work, too," he said. "Think of it as Active Directory connecting with the MSN data store -- but only at the enterprise administrator's decision."

Eventually, he said, users will be able to log in from anywhere and get all their contacts, calendar info and shared files.

Sounds Groove-y.

The collaboration strategy detailed at the meeting bears the strong imprint of Ray Ozzie, Microsoft CTO and founder of Groove Networks, which Microsoft 2005 acquired in March. Groove was designed to let work teams or business units set up collaboration tools on their own.

Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates told analysts that Ozzie plays a key role in the company's collaboration strategy, adding, "The business benefit of making people more productive when they can get at information in a simple fashion is one of the biggest opportunities we have."