With the redesign of its MSN site, Microsoft has adopted a card-based motif that represents a departure from the colorful tiles of Windows 8--and a big move toward the look and feel of its most formidable contender, Google.
And if Microsoft redesigned MSN for a "mobile-first, cloud-first" world, as it claims, it sure didn't include Windows Phone.
It's hard to believe that MSN, which was released in conjunction with Windows 95, is almost 20 years old. Microsoft claims millions of people visit the site, which aggregates content from a number of different sources.
On Monday, Microsoft showed off its new look for MSN at preview.msn.com. It takes the concept of "Web portal" and extends it to the concept of a front page for Microsoft's services and popular Web sites.
"MSN is positioned to bring together the world's best media sources along with data and services to enable people to get more done in their daily, digital lives," a Microsoft spokeswoman explained, when asked what role MSN would play within Microsoft. " Its role within the Microsoft suite of services is to serve as a connecting thread and entry point for Microsoft sites, as well as critical third party sites that consumers use every day. The new MSN is a reinforcement of Satya Nadella's vision for one Microsoft and a mobile-first, cloud-first world."
There's actually a lot to like in the new redesign. But the UI adopts the rather spartan card motif of sites like Google, adapting what you might call the Brutalist style to a Web page. Compare MSN's new look to the Google Play store, for example, or the new, icon-driven look of Google Drive. Useful, yes. But not really friendly, as you might expect a Web portal to be.
Brian MacDonald, corporate vice president of information and content experiences at Microsoft, explained that MSN now reflects the changes in how users interact with their favorite content.
"Looking at this landscape, we have rebuilt MSN from the ground up for a mobile-first, cloud-first world," MacDonald wrote. "The new MSN brings together the world's best media sources along with data and services to enable users to do more in News, Sports, Money, Travel, Food & Drink, Health & Fitness, and more. It focuses on the primary digital daily habits in people's lives and helps them complete tasks across all of their devices. Information and personalized settings are roamed through the cloud to keep users in the know wherever they are."
That's terrific, but check out this before/after screenshot from a Windows Phone: the current MSN on the left, and the MSN preview on the right. Apparently, in 'mobile first,' it's okay to have content running off the screen.
What's most noteworthy is how MSN's redesign moves significantly away from the Windows 8 "Metro" style it had previously adopted. In October, 2012, Microsoft redesigned MSN in bright, vibrant colors to echo the look and feel of Windows 8. With the monochromatic, tile-free redesign, Microsoft seems to be admitting that Windows 8's design was a mistake. We'll have to see if other Microsoft sites and properties follow suit.
Under the hood, however, MSN seems a lot more useful. As you might expect, you can tell MSN your interests, and "follow" certain topics. But these preferences also carry over to Microsoft's other services, such as its Cortana digital assistant.
At the top of the page, Microsoft has embedded a "services stripe" that connects to Microsoft services like OneDrive and Office 365, and also popular Internet sites such as Facebook. Put within the context of Bing's social connections to Twitter, Facebook, and more, this makes a lot of sense.
If you happen to use MSN's Food & Drink section to read a recipe, too, look for the embedded button that enables you to save the list of ingredients as a shopping list which can be pushed to your phone. Now that is cool. Microsoft said it plans to launch a series of apps (MSN Money, MSN Sports, and MSN Food & Drink) across iOS and Android, complementing the apps it already has for Windows Phone and Windows.
In general, I'd prefer a single, deep, MSN app that includes all of these sections, rather than a number of shallow, narrowly-focused ones. But planned tools like shopping lists, a savings calculator, a symptom checker, and a 3D body explorer might justify the separation.
Granted, the Internet tends to hate all change, especially the look and feel of popular Web pages. Criticizing a preview of MSN's redesign may seem premature, but its glaring departure from the bright, bold strokes it adopted with Metro are telling--and also, sadly, kind of dull.