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THE CUTTING EDGE: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : So Far, MSN Nothing to E-Mail Home About

Well, I did it. Without benefit of therapy or any assistance from the Cal Tech Jet Propulsion Laboratory, I managed to install Windows 95 on my computer--the one I depend on for putting food on the table, wasting time and writing nominally salable literary works.

I took this risky step in order to explore the new Microsoft Network, which is tightly integrated into the new operating system and which has struck fear into the hearts of competitors such as CompuServe and America Online.

The whole experience gave me two big surprises. The first was that Windows 95 installed so easily. I was expecting all kinds of trouble, but the process was quick and smooth.

The second was that Microsoft Network was so disappointing. I found the interface confounding and the content weak. Also, some aspects of the service aren’t ready for prime time. There is no off-line reader, for instance, so reading message threads will be a costly experience considering that MSN charges by the hour.

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I confess one problem is that I’m just cranky. Although installation was easy, learning a new operating system is a pain, especially when it hogs resources like this one does. As an old Windows and DOS guy, I don’t know from folders and shortcuts, and it makes me uneasy feeling that I don’t know what’s going on in my system. Because I’m sure I’ll get over this, I want to make a point here of saying something nice about MSN.

Windows 95 and MSN deliver some whiz-bang features, after all. They let you download files while reading discussion group messages and conducting a chat session, all simultaneously. You can even be writing a letter with your word processor at the same time.

MSN subscribers also get full-blown Internet access. If you got Windows 95 as an upgrade from Windows 3.1, you will be able to download from MSN the necessary Internet module and install it, although it isn’t available yet. The version of Windows 95 that comes with new computers will already have this module installed, and it’s also included on the Plus! Companion for Windows 95 (which costs extra).

Moreover, MSN is already the site of some good discussions from users worldwide, and given Microsoft’s international user base, I suspect the discussion forums--Microsoft is calling them “BBSes"--will be one of the strongest things about MSN. I lurked in a medical discussion that included users from Quebec, the United States and Colombia, for instance. There is already plenty of fodder for cat lovers. The graphics, thanks to MSN’s advanced compression, are nice. And it’s easy to find out who’s who using the MSN member profiles.

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Unfortunately, all this goes on behind one of the more impenetrable interfaces I’ve encountered on-line. Disks containing America Online’s snazzy and inviting interface, which any novice can instantly understand, are falling out of every magazine and mailbox, but apparently few of them have reached Microsoft’s neighborhood in metropolitan Seattle, because in this department MSN is as bad as AOL is good.

Microsoft’s philosophy was to make MSN look like everything else on your hard drive, which means representing the service’s content as a series of cryptic folders within folders (or lists, if you choose that form of display). The result, to me, is a lot of mouse clicking and confusion. There are times, in fact, when it’s not immediately clear whether you’re still on-line or not.

A Microsoft official with whom I spoke acknowledged that the look and feel of MSN is likely to change substantially within the next year, thanks to its Blackbird on-line publishing system, which will give developers of content for MSN an opportunity to completely customize their offerings.

Meanwhile, MSN isn’t anything to write home about. One of its worst aspects is sending mail, which involves loading Microsoft’s lumbering Exchange module. MS Exchange really wants 12 megabytes of RAM instead of the mere 8 on my machine, so most users without a relative in the RAM business will find it annoyingly slow. (Apparently you can substitute Eudora or any other TCP/IP compliant mail program in its place.)

Slowness is a problem with the network generally. I seemed to spend an awful lot of time waiting while Windows 95 or MSN or both flogged my hard drive mercilessly.

Still, I’m sure MSN will be a big success. First, it’s right there in your face, on the Windows 95 desktop (unless you remove it; use the right mouse button). Second, it’s not too expensive. You can pay $4.95 a month for the first three hours and $2.50 per hour after that, or if you’re one of the first 500,000 users, you can get three hours a month all year for $39.95. Heavier users can pay $19.95 a month for 20 hours, a good price for the Internet access alone.

Besides, what many users want most from an on-line service is to communicate with other users, which MSN is already good at. Besides its strong bulletin boards for discussion, MSN already seems to have quite a bit of live chat going.

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Daniel Akst welcomes messages at akstd@news.latimes.com

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Added Bonus

For prospective cyberspace denizens, Windows 95 has an important virtue that has nothing to do with Microsoft Network: Microsoft has replaced the Windows Terminal telecommunications program with HyperTerminal, a more fully functional program that has ANSI support (so you get those nice colors when you dial a bulletin board system) and the ability to capture on-line sessions to a file or printer. These capabilities were missing from Terminal. Many users may find this to be the only telecommunications program they need.


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