Microsoft upgrades home Internet appliance

Microsoft on Tuesday announced the availability of MSN Companion 2.0, a standalone appliance that can house Internet-access profiles from multiple users.

The MSN Companion 2.0 appliance can hold a maximum of nine Internet user profiles, said Cory Curtis, spokesman for Microsoft. MSN Companion 1.0 allowed the creation of only one profile.

Companion 2.0 is a barebones, no-frills Internet access appliance, said Curtis. "A user has to just plug the device into a phone line to connect to the Internet," he said.

Based on Compaq Computer Corp.'s iPAQ appliance, MSN Companion 2.0 will come in 2 models -- the IA-1 and IA-2. The IA-1 appliance, priced at US$399, will include an LCD (liquid crystal display) monitor, while the IA-2 device, priced at US$299, will come with a CRT (cathode ray tube) monitor. Both MSN Companion appliances will come with a keyboard, a USB (universal serial bus) port and a modem, said David Albritton, a spokesman for Compaq.

The USB port will allow the appliances to connect to secondary devices, that could allow the creation of a home network, connection to external storage devices or access to a broadband Internet connection, said Curtis.

A stripped-down version of Windows CE designed to provide multiuser Internet access will be built into the appliances, said Curtis. Users connecting to the Internet using MSN Companion will get customized access to Microsoft's e-mail service Hotmail, business service Web site MoneyCentral and instant messaging service MSN Messenger, he said.

The appliances will enable users to share music files and also allow voice communication over the Internet, said Curtis. Periodic software updates for the Companion service will de downloaded from the Internet and installed automatically, he said.

Introduced in August last year, MSN Companion 1.0 allowed a single user to connect to the Internet. Declining to give sales figures for the product, Curtis said MSN Companion 2.0 was a service upgrade to Companion 1.0.

The appliance will be available directly from Compaq and from retailers nationwide, said Albritton of Compaq.

As an incentive to buy MSN Companion, Microsoft Corp. will offer 6 months of free Internet access through its MSN service. At the end of 6 months, users will have the option to continue subscribing to MSN at US$21.95 per month, said Curtis. Users will also have the option of cancelling MSN's service and using alternate ISPs to connect to the Internet. However, Microsoft will charge users a monthly fee of US$9.95 per month if they use a competing ISP.

"Some families wanted to connect to Earthlink (instead of MSN) to keep one e-mail account," said Curtis, adding that the $9.95 fee will pay for the upkeep of the MSN's Companion service, which includes software upgrades.

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