For more than a year, the Microsoft Network (MSN) bore reassuring witness to the fact that Bill Gates can screw up in a big way. Many thought MSN couldn't go wrong when it was launched with Windows 95, which screened an icon that put tens of millions of users just a click away from signing up.
It certainly put the fear of Gates into rival online services, which unsuccessfully petitioned US anti-monopoly watchdogs to kill it at birth. But $200 million of Windows 95 hype went down the drain because the service was simply not ready at launch time. Access was scattered, fitful and slow. The interface was confusing. And MSN modelled itself on self-contained non-Webbed services such as AOL and CompuServe, which were already looking old-fashioned beside the all-aboard Internet.
Gates saw the Internet light at the end of 1995 and wrenched Microsoft into a screeching U-turn. Its software was quickly and massively Web-enabled - MSN involved scrapping millions of dollars worth of physical infrastructure which, in Britain, was replaced by lines leased from UUNet Pipex. Late last year, MSN was relaunched purely as a Web-based service with a new interface, but the old model has not been fully abandoned because Gates still wants to sell content as well as access to the open Web. He has modelled MSN on TV, programming attractions and dividing his content into channels.
So, MSN combines the schizoid feel of AOL and CompuServe - now both Web-enabled - with the wider Internet hidden behind an interface plugging proprietary content. You can imagine naive users never realising it's there. The immediate impression is one of a slicker, brighter MSN - the new logo fairly jumps at you from the Windows desktop.
The opening screen, a host of graphics scrolling over a black background, looks good but falls into the classic trap of allowing aesthetics to rule over function. The function in this case is to get users into the content, or onto the Web, as quickly as possible - not to show off flashy graphics and certainly not to show off the resource-hungry ActiveX technology that powers them. The interface slowed my old Dotlink home PC to an unusable crawl, even though its 8Mb RAM and Pentium-class P24T Intel processor more than met MSN's minimum specifications. Response was slow even on a better endowed office PC using a high-bandwidth leased line.
It happened that the week before writing this review I had been in the US hooked up to AOL, whose graphics-rich interface fairly zipped along on a 486-based HP OmniBook notebook. The difference is that AOL designed its screens with the limitations of older home systems in mind.
It's a real tease
The problems with the MSN home screen are not limited to performance.
Across the top are navigation buttons and four dropdown menus for the main content areas - On Stage, Essentials, Communicate and Find. Along the bottom are icons for six channels. You might foolishly assume, as I did, that each of these icons will take you to the channel they name. Not so. They throw up a list of subchannels which themselves throw up, extremely sluggishly, yet more teaser graphics. Only after clicking at these in vain do you realise that most of this is flam, and the channels must actually be activated via the On Stage dropdown menu.
Old hands at Windows may be more put out by this than new users, who will simply be confirmed in their worst fears about computers being confusing. This is a pity because Microsoft has made an energetic attempt to pioneer services in a still immature medium. The On-Stage channels lead to a variety of news services and magazines, including a women's title and Microsoft's intelligent if US-fixated Slate site. And in the deeper menu levels, where MSN abandons its over-the-top graphics, response times become tolerable.
The hi-tech comes in useful with sound or video clips, which start running before they have been fully downloaded. Microsoft has teamed up with US news provider NBC to provide a running news service, MSNBC. It may be US-oriented but its beauty is that it does things which TV can't, such as providing links to related services and information. And you can set up a personalised news feed to email you items in your specified areas of interest. Some On Stage channels are more entertainment-oriented, including adventure games and opportunities to chat with 'celebrities'. Sheduled attractions include live chats with astronauts linking up with the Russian space station.
The US bias is less grating in the entertainment sections because there is more common ground. The Essentials menu includes online reference works such as Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, and a shopping mall and travel agency that have yet to be set up fully for UK users - Microsoft says they will be ready early this year. Communicate provides access to email, Usenet newsgroups, MSN forums and chat rooms. Finally, Find offers a selection of search engines including one for MSN itself, so you can ignore all this content and simply use MSN for direct Web access. The interface is a heavily customised Internet Explorer 3.0 browser which is used in different incarnations by AOL and CompuServe. If you click a little arrow by the MSN icon you get the familiar box for entering URLs.
You can bypass the irritating graphics by using the standard Internet Explorer 3.0, which is what heavy Web users will probably do, particularly those with older PCs or slow lines. Charges are #14.95 a month or #149.95 a year for unlimited use, or u4.95 a month for up to three hours plus #1.95 for each additional hour. This is on a par with service-only provider Pipex although it's more expensive than Demon's flat #10 monthly fee, which also buys 5Mb of space for your own Web pages.
MSN offers access to its content to users of other ISPs for #4.95 a month, but until it boosts its UK contribution it can hardly expect many takers. It will attract plenty of users, if only through heavy TV advertising and the Microsoft name. But many questions remain, not least whether there is any point in trying to sell content to a closed subscriber community when micro-transactions will soon allow you to sell ad hoc to the world.
Current users tolerate slow responses on the Web because it is an information tool. MSN is trying to attract a new class of user accustomed to instant entertainment, and by overstretching the Web infrastructure it could even discredit the medium. So it can be argued that MSN is right to push the technology to its limits, and that by building up experience and resources for content provision, Microsoft is positioning itself for the advent of broadband interactive services. These could soon come in the form of multichannel data broadcasts from satellites, with land lines used as back channels. But here Microsoft is pitching itself against veteran Rupert Murdoch, and in this game Bill Gates has more ambition than experience.
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