The Decline and Fall of MSN as I See It

We will retire Messenger in all countries worldwide in the first quarter of 2013 (with the exception of mainland China where Messenger will continue to be available).” says Skype’s Tony Bates.[1]

I am agog. I am aghast. Will MSN be gone at last? Well maybe I should not act too surprised at any move of Microsoft now as we’ve seen too much recently – a subversive Metro UI so disconnected with traditional Windows desktop leaving users scrambling around for programs in the start menu, or the dark-as-hell Visual Studio 2012 making any working day a gloomy one (and shouting to you with ALL CAPITAL menus). Still, MSN is different.

It goes back to the years when I got into college in China. It was 2002. Internet had been hot by then, but I personally hadn’t tried much. There was instant messaging, yes. We started to use Tencent QQ (a Chinese imitation of ICQ, now a major Chinese IT tycoon) with new friends and old pals in high school, and asking for QQ number was as common as asking for the phone number.

Then MSN came to China, and it was such a fresh breeze. Large email account, customizable profile picture, professional-looking UI. It was awesome. Soon MSN swept over China. Using QQ for business communication might be considered “unprofessional”, but MSN was quite ok. Then it came with more fancy stuff. Nudge, winks, emoticons, personal status, handwriting input, even games with friends. What would you expect? It got everything instant messaging should have.

In 2004 there came MSN Spaces. Blogging just became popular in China, and blogging sites sprung up like mushrooms. MSN had this great idea – I see it ingenious even today – to have the “gleam”, a little orange asterisk before the contact names.[2] You didn’t have to tell everybody that you had a blog, and people needed no checking or subscription to know you had updated. Everything was in one place. All your friends were there, with the asterisks prompting you that blog updates were just a click away. Numerous friends of mine moved over from other blogging sites to MSN Spaces, and yes, I also wrote many posts on MSN Spaces and I loved the fact that my friends came to see them as well. Those were the golden days of MSN, and they bore so many memories of my years in college.

Then all of a sudden, things began to change. MSN Messenger became Windows Live Messenger, and the whole installation package gained weight. I didn’t need all those stuff. Again out of the blue, since some version, the asterisks that I loved so much, disappeared. Why? Nobody knew. Social update was another matter. I personally think it really undermined the value of MSN Spaces, and I did see a drop in visits. In 2010, MSN Spaces shut down, migrating more than 30 million users to WordPress. It’s not the worst ending, but just to think about forsaking 30 million users accumulated through the years made me sad, and confused. We no longer have this unified platform, and the lingering connection between the Windows Live home page and other social feeds finally died with the migration to in 2012.

Microsoft has been the technical pioneer in many instances, yet its products sometimes fail to follow. In the tide to web platforms, MSN fell behind. Unlike Gmail and Gtalk, MSN Web Messenger was a standalone product for several years, and later when it finally integrated with Hotmail, it didn’t support all the browsers well at first, and couldn’t save the chat history. In the recent surge of mobile applications, MSN wasn’t able to catch up. The iOS messenger app were not on a par with third-party apps, and the mobile site was clumsy. Eventually I saw less and less friends on MSN messenger and… I don’t even install MSN now.

People might attribute the decline of MSN to the rise of new media. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, I agree that they are very attractive and nibble the user base of MSN. But I as a user, was once very attached to it, and a considerable part of my social network was on it. I have been so reluctant to leave, but those changes ignoring user experience are pushing me out. It’s very sad to see a product once so successful fall down in a few years, yet that’s the cruelty of the reality.

Just like all once-had-been-great products, MSN Messenger finally comes to its end. Skype is great per se, so will it bring us some nice surprises?


[2] I just came to know the name of this “little star” as I used to call it, from

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