Microsoft has completely revised their mobile portal. The changes have been in public beta for the last four months and have gone through quite a bit of tweaking during that time. The final result is impressive. Most mobile portal’s start pages are a bunch of links and a search box. Microsoft is putting real content right on the home page. Users see News, Sports and Entertainment headlines with small 50px wide images plus a three day local weather forecast on the first page.
I think MS is on the right track with this redesign. The list of links style homepage is a holdover from wml days when phones could only display a few lines of text. The mobile web is maturing and mobile sites are beginning to look more like PC web sites – rich content, images and some real graphic design. The are dangers to adding more pizazz to mobile sites; page size bloat and usability issues. MSN Mobile has achieved good usability by putting the most important content, News and Weather, at the top of the page and by providing a full set of accesskeys (numeric hotkeys) for one click access to news, sports etc. Mobile page size is important as many popular phones can only handle 10-20 KB of markup and images. MSN is using browser detection and adaptation to deliver pages optimized for each device. Phones with lower memory limits get fewer headlines, smaller images and only a one day weather forecast on the front page. There’s even a version for wml-only browsers. Like all browser detection it’s not perfect, the Openwave V7 browser on my Nextel i850 won’t load MSN Mobile at all returning an “Unsupported Content Type” error.
In the past I’ve criticized MSN’s news and financial coverage for it’s use of tiny “edited for mobile” stories lacking in substance. With this release, mobile MSN has gone from one of the worst mobile news sources to one of the best. MSN’s news is from MSNBC and includes hundreds of full length articles, some written by MSNBC staffers and others sourced from the likes of Newsweek, Forbes, Motley Fool, Business Week and The Financial Times. Sports is from Fox Sports but is completely different than Fox’s own rather weak text-only mobile site. The MSN version has more and longer stories covering more sports and includes images.
Also somewhat improved is MSN Mobile’s Financial coverage which has gained general business news from the AP and Motley Fool and very nice charts covering 1 and 5 days, 1 and 3 months and 1, 3, 5 and 10 years. That’s it though. MSN is still missing detailed quote information like price/earnings. market cap, analyst ratings or company specific news.
A new and well done feature is the Movies section which lists films showing at nearby theaters. The films are listed 2 to a page in order of box office gross with show times, poster image and star rating. Plot synopsis, cast list and star bios are a click away. Theater addresses are listed but no driving directions or theater phone numbers – surprising omissions as both directions and click to call phone numbers are available in MSN’s local search.
Links to Hotmail, MSN Messenger and Spaces round out the MSN Portal. Tellingly there is no link to Live.com although searches do still return a Live Search results page. Wasn’t Live supposed to replace MSN? It looks like Microsoft is giving up on Live or using it only as a search brand. The Live.com homepage even gives an abandoned feel with a link to the “New! MSNBC.com beta” and a Sports link that goes to Fox Sport’s old, inferior home page rather than the new one created for MSN Mobile.
All in all an excellent mobile portal. I rate the new MSN as clearly superior to Yahoo, AOL and Google’s current mobile start pages.
MSN – mobile.msn.com (xhtml-mp)
Ratings: Content Usability