Though Mac support among Internet Service Providers over the past decade has frequently been poor, Mac users always have had plenty of options.

And with the addition in recent years of much faster broadband services from cable and telephone companies, Mac users have more Internet access options than ever.

As of last month, Microsoft Corp.'s MSN service became the latest ISP to offer Mac OS X compatibility.

MSN has styled itself as a competitor to America Online Inc., now a part of media conglomerate AOL Time Warner Inc., but despite heavy marketing has made almost no headway.

Unfortunately for the dial-up providers, from huge AOL to the smallest local ISPs, the glory days of runaway growth are over. Virtually everyone who wants an Internet connection now has one.

At the end of 2002, AOL had 26.5 million U.S. subscribers to MSN's 9 million. The No. 3 ISP, Earthlink, with which Apple has had a partnership since 2000, had 4.8 million.

But in the last quarter of 2002, AOL started losing subscribers, a number recently reported to have grown to more than 1 million. Most analysts expect AOL, based in Dulles, Va., to continue losing subscribers at this rate through the end of the year.

MSN, too, has struggled, losing 300,000 subscribers in the first quarter of the year.

Many users are abandoning traditional dial-ups for broadband services from telephone and cable companies. While more expensive, at $35 to $60 a month, broadband offers much faster speeds and never shuts off.

Both AOL and MSN have had limited success with their own broadband offerings -- at least those numbers are going up, not down -- but most people who want broadband go elsewhere.

Worse still for the Big Two, a variety of smaller ISPs offering "bare bones" service -- just a connection with no proprietary software or content for as little as $9.99 a month -- are stealing away value-oriented customers.

In fact, the largest "bare bones" provider, United Online Inc. -- which owns the Juno, NetZero and BlueLight.com services -- reported a 50 percent increase in subscribers in 2002.

With a shrinking user base, the major dial-up services are looking everywhere for customers.

As it happens, what's been bad for the big ISPs has been great for Mac users, particularly those running Mac OS X. MSN's recent release of OS X software for its service follows by about nine months an OS X version of AOL's software.

Earthlink introduced its "Total Access 2003" software for Mac OS X in April, while United Online released its OS X version of Juno in March. A number of smaller ISPs also have added support for Macs in recent months.

But despite the pressures of intensifying competition, AOL remains the service to beat.

No one is better at serving users who want Internet access as simple and easy as possible. That's how AOL got so big in the first place.

AOL also gets credit for having long supported the Mac, going back to 1989 when the service was called AppleLink and worked with the Apple II as well as the Mac.

AOL's software for Mac OS X reflects a serious effort at satisfying its Mac users. It incorporates all they key elements of OS X's Aqua interface into the familiar AOL menus, welcome screen and icons.

The company also broke tradition by using Netscape Inc.'s browser engine in its OS X version, rather than Microsoft's sluggish Internet Explorer.

Windows users of AOL won't get that perk for a long time, if ever. The recent deal in which Microsoft paid AOL Time Warner $750 million for its past transgressions against Netscape included a provision that allows AOL to use Explorer royalty-free in its software for seven years.

Of course, it's always possible to use any browser you prefer -- Apple's own Safari, for instance -- with any Internet service, even if it has a built-in browser of its own, as do MSN and AOL.

Another point in AOL's favor is its diverse and copious supply of exclusive content, not to mention its legendary chat rooms and Instant Messaging service.

Though derided as "training wheels for the Internet" by experienced users, AOL does enough right that anyone trying to compete with it directly, as MSN has tried to do, faces quite a challenge.

Particularly in its battle for Mac users, MSN starts out with several disadvantages.

  • First, it's a Microsoft product, and a large number of Mac users distrust anything that originates from Redmond, Wash.

  • Second, MSN's proprietary content falls far short of AOL's in breadth and scope. Though MSN offers most of the usual fare, such as entertainment and shopping pages, most of it is available on the Web to anyone with an Internet connection. In that sense, MSN in some ways more closely resembles a "portal" site such as Yahoo.

    The only material exclusive to MSN subscribers are some financial tools and Encarta-based encyclopedia content. MSN has said it expects to add more exclusive content in the future, but it has a long way to go to catch up to AOL.

  • Third, the MSN software commits the cardinal sin of looking more like Windows XP than Mac OS X.

    Since the Mac BU has done such a good job of making recent incarnations of Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office look and act like a true Mac applications, it's both puzzling and disappointing that MSN so much resembles Windows XP.

    In addition, the MSN browser sports some annoying interface anomalies, such as the nonstandard placement of the "Reload" and "Stop" buttons. Instead of being nestled next to the "Back" and "Forward" buttons, as with most browsers, "Reload" and "Stop" are tucked off to the right side of the Web address window.

    This odd button placement runs counter to users' instincts and makes the browser harder to use. Perhaps Microsoft thought it more important to reserve the space for its "Messenger" "Shopping" and "Entertainment" icons.

    Which brings us to some of the things MSN for the Mac does right.

    The software offers a lot of opportunities to customize such information as weather, news and calendars, though such features aren't particularly unique.

    Perhaps MSN's most notable feature is the "Dashboard" -- a retractable, customizable menu to the right side of the main screen that displays local weather conditions, a link to your e-mail, MSN Messenger buddies currently online and a Safari-like search window that utilizes the Looksmart search engine.

    Microsoft also touts its e-mail "spam"-filtering and parental controls as key features, but MSN's versions aren't much different, or better, than AOL's. Still, it's more than you'll get from most of the bare-bones services.

    MSN's greatest opportunity to lure Mac users is in the area of tech support. Microsoft says MSN will offer free 24-hour Mac-specific tech support, which addresses a major sore spot among Mac users.

    Almost every Mac user has heard the maddening question, "Which version of Windows are you using?" when calling an ISP's tech support line.

    If MSN can build a reputation for solid Mac support, and even Apple partner Earthlink has a spotty record in this area, it could win a lot of Mac users on that feature alone.

    To be sure, MSN needs at least one compelling, distinguishing feature to gain any traction in the Mac market. Though MSN has its merits, the wide range of competition demands Microsoft deliver more value for the money than MSN currently offers.

    MSN costs $21.95 a month, $2 less than AOL, but AOL offers vastly more exclusive content. Bargain-hunters will note that Earthlink costs the same as MSN, while United Online's services, like many other smaller ISPs, cost a mere $9.99.

    If the bare-bones ISPs beefed up their Mac tech support, they'd be even more formidable competitors to MSN and AOL, at least for Mac users who don't care about all the bells and whistles the major services offer.

    Internet access is one of the rare cases in which Mac users have the luxury of making their choice based on individual needs rather than be restricted to the one or two vendors that support the Mac.

    It is a luxury Mac users wish they had more often.
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