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Website Review: 'The Microsoft Network'

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We gave it a B+

Sometimes the magic works, and you get to witness the future of a medium embodied in one object. It doesn’t even have to be a particularly good object. The Jazz Singer was a frayed basket of clichés even in 1927, but everyone who saw it suddenly jonesed for more talking pictures. The Microsoft Network may very well be the Jazz Singer of commercial cyberspace: What it offers is not so much brilliant content as brilliantine surface, a shimmering new way of presenting information and entertainment within the confines of a Web browser. If MSN succeeds, it could kick-start the online world toward living up to its own hype. Even scarier: If MSN really succeeds, it could turn the Web into TV.

When it was launched in 1995, MSN was a proprietary online service like America Online, inaccessible from the greater Internet. But Bill Gates saw the writing on the Web and announced a stunning volte-face: MSN would be completely reconfigured and put on the Internet. Relaunched earlier this month, the new MSN is halfway between the Web and a proprietary service. While a large portion can be accessed free of charge at http://www.msn.com, to really experience what Gates and company are up to, you need to (a) send away for a CD-ROM that (b) installs a special browser for viewing MSN into your computer, then (c) sign up as a member for differing fee plans (as high as $19.95 a month for unlimited usage). Of course, if you don’t have the Windows 95 operating system on your PC, you can’t run the CD-ROM: Gates wouldn’t mind burying Apple along with AOL.

The first thing you’ll notice when you look at the world through an MSN-colored browser is that everything is bloody moving. A billboard opening screen uses fluid animation to tout the latest ”programs.” Elegant pull-down menus direct you to various sites, including six ”channels” in the OnStage entertainment area. Supermarket soft rock undulates under every screen.

If this sounds like the elements of a TV newsmagazine, that’s the point. MSN’s gimmick is to borrow the terminology and structure of a television network in an effort to make sofa spuds feel at home. To that end, Microsoft has hired Bob Bejan as the service’s executive producer. Bejan was the guy behind the wretched 1995 interactive-cinema experience Mr. Payback (which got one of the few F‘s I’ve ever doled out in my history at this magazine), but let’s not hold that against him. Yet. As mastermind of MSN’s content, Bejan is charged with bringing Hollywood gloss to Redmond, Wash. And even if the TV metaphor is tendentious in theory and silly in practice, by God if the thing doesn’t sizzle.

Channel 1 collects MSN’s news, weather, and sports offerings — in particular, MSNBC, Microsoft’s joint news effort with NBC. The glitzy stuff starts to show up on Channel 2, devoted to showbiz and games: The official Star Trek site is here along with two decent Web soaps and a cheesy road trip/scavenger-hunt game called the Broken Line (available on the free site and not exactly the best advertisement, guys).

Channel 3 is better: The maligned but improving Slate resides here, as does a nifty time capsule ”exhibit” called Retrospect 360[degrees] and the beautifully designed and written travel ‘zine Mungo Park. The lifestyle-oriented Channel 4 features a solid wine guide; a women’s magazine with regular writing by Molly Ivins, Miss Manners, and Merrill Markoe; and the upscale but car-fetishizing V-Style, aimed at people who worship Infiniti commercials. The snotty, superficial, and fun ‘zine Mint is the high point of Channel 5, targeted at Gen-Xers, and Channel 6 caters to ”interactive teens,” with pen pals, a high-school soap, and an astrology column written in pandering dude-speak.

All in all, OnStage is batting about .500 — and that’s just one area of MSN. More utilitarian subsites include a car-buying service and such Web-ified CD-ROM projects as Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia and Cinemania movie guide (minus the disc’s reviews by Leonard Maltin, Pauline Kael, and Roger Ebert, all of whom were no doubt wary of parting with online rights).

Downsides? Surfing MSN can be as agonizingly pokey as any Web experience. AOL has a far greater variety of content. Most critically, MSN’s communications tools just don’t compute. I was never able to access any of the service’s bulletin boards, and Chatworld puts users’ conversations on screen in the form of comic-strip panels. Sure, you can toggle into straight text if you want, but for sheer eccentricity of concept, this is up there with last year’s failed desktop system, Microsoft Bob.

To which I say: So what? Love it or loathe it, Microsoft has always specialized in jamming a product out fast, then improving it over time. And what’s already good about MSN — fluidity, flash, a willingness to try anything, no matter how dopey — will keep it afloat until the service gets its act together. The other online outfits have long offered entertainment. MSN is the first to be entertaining. B+

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