Web Informant #222, 30 October 2000:
Microsoft's dead butterfly


Microsoft Network has been through some rough patches. First created as a dial-up service provider, it then became a content portal. Last week it changed again to a new kind of Internet access system software. The deal is you download MSN Explorer, which makes use of various Microsoft Internet components (IE v5, Windows Media Player 6.4, and dial-up networking) to make it easier for families to access the Internet. Microsoft thinks MSN Explorer can be an alternative to AOL, and allow multiple people to manage their email, bookmarks, and buddy lists from a single computer without them stepping on each other's fingers.

(As a side note, Earthlink has developed version 5.0 of its access software to allow multiple people to share a computer, although it is not quite ready for general family use and has lots of rough edges. Still, give them points for trying.)

It is also a single place to view web pages, listen to music, and send email. You don't need to know which software to bring up to do which task: Explorer will figure out what you are trying to do, Internet-wise.

It is a great idea, but it doesn't quite work. I have three issues with MSN Explorer. First, in order to do its job, all of its components must work flawlessly. Those of you that never have to reboot your Windows computers, please email me your secrets. I had trouble keeping Explorer running in my own tests. Second, as you might expect, Explorer is closely tied to Microsoft products. It is designed to work with MSN as your Internet access dial-up provider, Hotmail as your email service, Microsoft Messenger for instant messages and so forth. Of course, it will work with other dial-up providers (including cable modem and broadband connections) and you can still surf around the web, but you wouldn't want to use it that way for long.

But the third issue is perhaps the most troubling: MSN Explorer doesn't have much hope for a target audience. Microsoft is trying, in vain, to capture loyal AOL customers and convert them to the Microsoft way. It won't work. Even if MSN Explorer works better, who is going to switch from AOL to use it? And new Internet users will still prefer AOL, mainly because everyone they know are using AOL.

To get a second opinion here, I needed expert advice. So I turned to Perri Mogul, my favorite teenaged writer, to take a look and especially consider to begin to use it in place of AOL. Like many teens, Perri is an expert at using her computer, especially when it comes to AOL's Instant Messaging feature. Her household recently got a cable modem, and now she can IM anyone without having to wait for any dial-up access or deal with AOL busy signals. Here is her report.

I have about 150 people on my AOL buddy list. But there's no gimmick or new feature that could ever make all of them to switch to another company. So you say, "Well what if you could get everyone to switch, then would you switch too?" You want to know my answer? Sure, if everyone switched to MSN or any other company, of course I would. But why switch if everyone you need to contact already uses AOL. And it's not like MSN's instant messaging service is any better. In fact, it's worse. Do you know that if you want to use MSN to IM someone, they have to have you on their buddy list and they have to be on your buddy list? What am I supposed to do, call them up and tell them to put me on their buddy list? What if I don't have their phone number? There are plenty of people on my AOL buddy list whose phone numbers I don't know. And isn't that the whole point of instant messaging, so you don't have to talk on the phone?

I had lots of problems getting MSN to work on my home computers. In fact, around our house we have begun to call it the dead butterfly, after the icon that MSN places on your desktop. One computer refused to run the software, I don't know why and my mom is still trying to figure it out. And it's so annoying how if I make a mistake adding a screen name, I can't change or delete that name from the system.

The free phone call feature would be a great idea -- if it worked. I went through the "Audio Tuning Wizard" to make sure my audio settings were correct, and I could hear everything fine. The Wizard was a great feature because it allowed me to test the microphone and the speakers I was using very easily. But too bad because when I called my house, I could hear the person who picked up but they couldn't hear me. I checked to make sure it wasn't something wrong with my computer by seeing if Dial Pad, another Internet phone calling service, was working. Dial Pad worked fine, which means another thing wrong with MSN.

MSN email works pretty much the same way as AOL email, except for one small problem: I didn't receive the email my sister sent to me while I was online until I signed on again the next day. On AOL, when someone sends you an email, you receive it about 5 seconds later. Big difference, don't you think?

I know I've made MSN sound like nothing compared to AOL but I don't want everyone to think it's so bad because it's not. I was able to find some good features about MSN. For example, you can easily watch popular music videos. When you sign on, there is an icon that says "music". All you have to do is click on it and then click on the tab that says "music videos" and there they are, simple as that! Another positive feature that MSN has but AOL doesn't is that two people from the same household can be signed on at the same time. This was particularly helpful when I couldn't get any of my friends to download the software on their computers: I just had my sister create a screen name and I IMed her.

AOL has basically taken over the whole Internet deal as far as I'm concerned. All the other Internet companies waited too long: AOL has everyone hooked. And even when MSN gets to be more stable, I still don't see that is worth it for me to switch. As my friends said when I asked them to try out the software: "Why do we need to try it if we already like what we have?" So maybe they're lazy, I'll give you that, but they're right. I'm sticking with AOL for now. Microsoft has a dead butterfly on their hands.

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David Strom
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