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A REVIEW: MICROSOFT’S BEACHHEAD IN CYBERSPACE

3 minute read
Josh Quittner

I admit that i’m prejudiced against the big commercial Internet providers. I’ve never expected great things from them, and certainly not from the Microsoft Network. But if Microsoft actually delivers all that it wants to…Wow!

For now, the Microsoft Network isn’t that different from its competitors, America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe. Subscribers pay $1 to $2 an hour and get the usual special-interest forums, where they can post messages; a commercial zone, where companies as diverse as newspapers and consumer-electronics makers can show off their wares; and chat areas, where people can type at each other. My favorite bit of weirdness: the chat area, Chat World, is modeled on a hotel, with different floors, concierge (for questions, not dry cleaning), atrium, restaurant and spa. An online spa. Now that’s my idea of exercise!

But Microsoft does have a home-team advantage that goes well beyond its marketing ability: it controls the basic operating system, Windows 95. And that allows Microsoft to invisibly weave some of the internal functions of the desktop computer with its online service. For instance, say you find a cool place on the Microsoft Network or the Internet. You can easily create a bookmark, which looks like a small icon, and drop it onto your computer’s desktop. Later, if you’re off-line and want to return to the place, just click on the bookmark and Windows 95 fires up the modem and connects to the cool site. To share your discovery, you can even E-mail the bookmark icon to a friend.

On the downside, wandering around the Microsoft Network feels like sneaking into a giant shopping mall under construction: lots of nooks and crannies but nothing to see yet. For now, Microsoft is happy to direct people out to the Internet, via its somewhat clunky browser, the Internet Explorer. Sometime next year Microsoft will release Blackbird, a so-called developer’s tool that could attract content providers by giving them the wherewithal to create multimedia pages that rival anything available on the Internet today. An even bigger plus: Microsoft will handle billing on behalf of its content partners, the merchants who will set up shop there. That could help create a new market for information, based on people purchasing info by the bit, for tiny sums of money. Want to see yesterday’s front page of, say, a newspaper called the Wonkonkoma Times? It will cost you 2¢. Want to see this minute’s headlines? That’s a dime. Such small transactions are uneconomical for credit-card companies but essential to Net commerce: if 10 million people are on the network and a million of them buy today’s headlines, that’s $100,000. The info-mall concept is where the Web is heading too. Microsoft just might get there first.

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