Jurassic Tech: My MSN Companion Circa 2000

Today in Jurassic Tech Todd Ogasawara takes you back to the Year 2000 — the time of network appliances like the NIC, the Compaq iPaq and his favorite — the MSN Companion. Check this hardware out …

It was the summer of 2000. And Microsoft announced the first MSN Companion.

This little computer looked a bit like Apple’s early all-in-one iMac. The MSN Companion was an Always On device for Hotmail, primarily.

Unlike other desktop PCs of the time, this was one was built using the same Windows CE operating system as the Microsoft Handheld PC and its Pocket PC.

There was competition in the nascent Internet appliance space circa 2000. Compaq’s iPAQ Home Internet Appliance had a list price of $599. A three-year MSN Internet Access subscription (dial-up modem access) provided a $400 rebate bringing the price down to $199.

Larry Ellison’s net appliance company, The New Internet Computer Company, or NIC, sold a $199 Netscape-only web browsing system, built on Cyrix circuitry and a modified flavor of Linux.

The MSN Companion, the NIC and the Compaq iPaq were doomed, of course. These Internet clients arrived before the cloud — literally all you could do with them was surf the web. There were no web apps — even Sun’s pioneering Star Office set of office apps was four years away at the time.

As you might guess, the MSN Companion was designed to use services provided by the Microsoft Network (MSN). It had Internet Explorer 4 (IE 4) for web browsing, a Hotmail email client, MSN Messenger service (now know as Live Messenger), and shopping access.

At 10.1-inches, the Compaq iPaq display was slightly larger than Apple’s current iPad’s 9.7-inch display. And its res was only 800×600 pixels. It did provide some support for online Java applications.

Does this sound familiar? It should. The Google Chrome OS owes much, in my opinion, to the Microsoft MSN Companion concept.

The Compaq device consisted of the all-in-one computer and a wireless (infrared) keyboard. You can see an assortment of dedicated function keys at the top of the keyboard. Note the navigation device below the spacebar and the two “mouse” buttons. Users had the option of using a USB mouse for navigation too.

The computer’s body was hidden behind the LCD display. You can see the large heat sink and single speaker grill in the photo above. The next two photos below illustrate how the Compaq’s device’s LCD could be folded all the way back to the surface of the computer chassis.

The CF (CompactFlash) card slot on the right side of the iPAQ Home Internet Appliance was an oddity. It could boot from an appropriately configured CF card and was presumably used for diagnostics. Some hobbyiests used this feature to install and use Linux.

Note that CF cards were not needed for system updates. Updates were automated and scheduled for early morning hours to reduce telephone line contention while the updates were downloaded. Those using either the built-in Ethernet, USB network connection via Dongle or HomePNA networking did not have to deal with phone line contention at all.

Compaq’s iPAQ Home Internet Appliance provided a rich set of ports in the back of the unit. From left to right you see the following:

  • RJ-11 jack for a telephone line from the wall. The unit has a built-in 56Kbps modem.
  • RJ-11 pass-through jack for use with a standard telephone. This eliminates the need for a separate jack or line-splitter
  • RJ-45 Ethernet jack for direct network access (instead of dial-up). This was not available in early units. The unit in these photos was a modified by the MSN Companion team at Microsoft.
  • Four USB ports. The device can support a USB mouse, a specially configured Epson 740 Micro Piezo ink-jet color printer, USB JBL Platinum Series stereo speaker, and some USB Ethernet dongles.
  • Mini-plug for analog speaker output.

While I personally made good use of this Compaq built MSN Companion, the consumer market did not embrace it. Support for the product ended in 2003.

In fact, by 2003, Microsoft, Compaq and Oracle’s The NIC Company had folded or were on the brink. The MSN Companion, the iPaq and the NIC passed with them. They were prescient — but way too early to survive.

We see their legacy in several of today’s products including the iPad, Google TV, Google Chrome OS and even the Metro UI in Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8.

Disclosure: Two staffers at aNewDomain, LLC — edit director Gina Smith and CTO David Street — worked at The NIC Company from 1999 to 2003.