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Microsoft Network is like dentist who says, 'This won't hurt a bit'


FRUSTRATED with America Online? Perhaps you would prefer a competitor whose installation plays a tune with the incisive lyric "Just too stupid to stop!"

The Microsoft Network online service arrived with Windows 95, amid much blather about its supposedly simple interface. Times change. "MSN was probably the worst of the bunch in terms of ease of use," Laura Jennings, the service's vice president, admitted in October. "We had adopted the Windows 95 interface religiously."

Now MSN has converted. In a total make-over, the service has sprouted a new look with frantic sound and graphics, channel selector buttons, "shows" that might last only 13 weeks and, inevitably, commercials. It is meant to resemble television. It reminds you that TV has better sound and video, installs in a flash, changes channels instantly, requires no tedious downloading and is not limited to users of Windows 95.

The CD-ROM begins with a pushy multimedia commercial whose irritating 20-something host declares, "I see you have good taste!" when you start the installation process. He also says, "I promise you, this won't hurt a bit."

Dentists say that, too. Although the CD-ROM jacket claims 50 megabytes of hard disk space are required, my host declared, "Hate to break it to you, but you haven't got enough space on your hard drive. So go delete some stuff you don't need."

My Windows system drive was bursting with stuff I did need, not to mention stuff I could have no earthly idea whether I needed or not until I deleted it and my system stopped working. A flattering "Expert" button offered to let me install things on a different drive but ended up sticking most of the megabytes on the system drive anyway. Given that you will inevitably end up downloading even more data you have no control over, make sure you have more than 100 megabytes free on your system drive before trying this at home.

Signed up and online, you quickly learn a cruel lesson about bandwidth. The characters that were so hyperactive when they addressed you from the relatively fast CD-ROM drive have turned into motionless online statues. Welcome to the Internet, dude.

In the glorious tradition of Microsoft Bob, MSN tries to make things "easier" for users by eliminating or hiding features. Built atop Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0, MSN's interface makes it reasonably easy to navigate proprietary content but eliminates the ability to visit several sites at once in multiple windows or to view a log of the sites you visited last session. But you can use your favorite traditional browser with MSN.

You can even set it up to bypass the proprietary MSN stuff entirely, which might not be a terrible idea. MSN has been justly criticized for lacking as much useful information as either CompuServe or AOL. That situation remains. Today, the most interesting sites under the MSN banner, like Expedia, Investor, MSNBC and Slate, are available free to anyone on the Web.

At the industry-standard price of $19.95 a month for unlimited service or $6.95 a month for 5 hours and $2.50 for each additional hour, MSN is a decent choice as a service provider, except for one problem: Its mail service does not yet use Internet standards.

And those commercials? They resemble some primitive form of television, wasting five irritating seconds or so now and then as you wend your way from one screen to another. MSN's new theme might be "This way to the Internet," but for now its content brings to mind P. T. Barnum's line: "This way to the egress."

Pub Date: 2/10/97

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