CeePrompt! Computer Connection

Growing accustomed to your interface

by Cathi Schuler

It's been almost a month since I started using Windows '95 and its gradually becoming easier and more friendly. I haven't quite weaned myself from the little "cheater apps" that I set up to make the transition easier. Early on, I located progman.exe (Windows 3.1 Program Manager) from Win95 Explorer and built myself a familiar interface with my old application icons. There is a certain comfort in having all my everyday icons nested neatly in a group called "My Stuff", rather than floating aimlessly in the clouds of Win95 heaven.

I finally had some time to explore the Microsoft Network to discover what the hoopla was all about. If you'll recall, this one module of Windows 95 threatened to delay the release of the entire operating system. Anne Bingaman, longtime Microsoft watchdog from the Justice Department, was considering an eleventh-hour injunction to block the release of Win95 at the behest of the major online companies who felt the inclusion of Microsoft Network with Win95 constituted an unfair trade advantage. I think Ms. Bingaman was prudent to step aside and let the consumer drive the economy and judge the merits of this new player in the online market.

The Microsoft Network (MSN) is the latest addition to the growing family of commercial online services. Like its major competitors, Prodigy, America Online and CompuServe, MSN features electronic mail, current events, business and finance, chat forums, reference guides, keynote speakers and recreational venues. Internet access is also available by additionally downloading the Internet Explorer from MSN.

Signing onto the Microsoft Network is as easy as double-clicking the icon on the Win95 desktop...but be sure to have your plastic handy. Microsoft is offering 10 online hours during your first 30 days free of charge, but only after you've provided your credit card information. If you don't cancel your subscription to MSN within the 30 day trial period, you are automatically enrolled in the "Standard Plan" for $4.95 per month, which includes 3 hours of online time. Each additional hour is billed at $2.50 per hour.

Once connected to MSN, you'll find a very chic and sophisticated interface. The photographic images and handsome art work, captured as .GIF (Graphic Image Files), are in startling contrast to the cartoon-like interfaces of America Online and Prodigy. Bill Gates personally greets you when you first sign on, inviting you to become a "partner in exploring new online frontiers". But all this elegance comes at a price: hefty hardware requirements. You'll need a fast modem, minimum 14.4 baud ---28.8 recommended, as well as plenty of memory, minimum 8 MB RAM. I signed on with an arsenal of hardware and still spent time waiting for images to appear in the "Online Viewer".

Microsoft Network seems to provide the basic content the other online services offer. Navigating through MSN is a snap, if you're comfortable with Win95 Explorer. MSN uses the same nested subdirectory structure and it's much easier to find what you're looking for here, than in America Online or Prodigy.

The biggest plus I discovered is the electronic mail composer which presents the user with a Microsoft Word interface and lets you create mail in Rich Text Format (RTF), allowing for true character formatting! For once, you can add boldface and italics to your e-mail...enlarge fonts and enhance your text with color. This is a great way to add a dynamic quality to your electronic mail....that is as long as you are corresponding with someone who is also on the Microsoft Network. Such fancy formatting is lost when it's delivered to providers who don't support RTF.

The "mini" versions of Microsoft Encarta and Bookshelf are also super reference resources that allow you to either print or download graphic images, as well as text. Some reference files also include audio enhancements for a true multimedia effect. These applets must be downloaded to your hard disk before they can be accessed.

At this point, I don't see the Microsoft Network as a major economic threat to the established online services. It's got some slick features, but certainly nothing that merits a court injunction. For now, I'll stick with the four online services I already have...which is probably three more than I really need!

Feedback? E-Mail cschuler@ceeprompt.com

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