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Fast Forward: MSN Explores a New Look [The Washington Post]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Fast Forward / Business section
The Washington Post
Nov. 10, 2000

MICROSOFT’S NEW SOFTWARE HAS A BUG—a colorful butterfly that’s been fluttering across TV screens as part of a $1 billion campaign to promote MSN Explorer, the new front end for the company’s Windows-based online service.

This butterfly icon also appears throughout the new program, Microsoft’s attempt to compete with America Online’s all-in-one software. Microsoft reports that more than 1.5 million customers have downloaded the free program since its Oct. 26 release.

I wasn’t in that group. Three attempts to download the 19.4-megabyte installer application failed, so I punted and used the CD-ROM supplied by Microsoft’s PR agency. (Normally, getting the software on free disc will cost $10 in shipping and will take three to four weeks for delivery; the company is also distributing copies of the program through direct mail and at RadioShack and Best Buy stores.

Installing it from the CD proved a far better method than tying up the phone line for the lengthy download. Within five minutes, that butterfly was flapping on my desktop, a yellow rubber-duck icon with my name on it was installed, and MSN Explorer was, running. (There are other icons to choose from for your sign-on if plastic waterfowl aren’t your cup of tea.)

This program’s sleek pleasing design features a useful tool bar and icons that provide quick access to e-mail, news blurbs, stock quotes, local weather updates, chat rooms and Web searches.

This everything-but-the-kitchen-sink program also includes media player photo albums, a calendar, Web-page creation tools and an auction site. Through its “Online Buddies” area, you can even make a free phone call over the Internet to anywhere in the U.S. or Canada. (The sound quality was not great, but acceptable, given the immature state of the technology.)

If anything, there’s too much stuff on MSN Explorer’s start page. Easily distracted users may get, well, easily distracted.

But compared with MSN’s much larger rival America Online, which launched its AOL 6.0 software on the same day as MSN Explorer, this program’s interface is an exercise in simplicity. It’s devoid of pop-up ads, with only a couple of easily ignored banners to clutter the screen. And this software can be used as a Web front end for any other Internet provider—even AOL.

Microsoft also aims to challenge AOL by offering a full 10 e-mail addresses with each MSN account. Unfortunately, these accounts are only available via Microsoft’s hotmail service. This means you have to up to do anything with your e-mail—even just to write a new message or read mail you’ve already received.

The flip side of this Web-centric thinking is the way that MSN Explorer remembers you and all of your preferences—wherever you are. Sign on with your user name and password, and your Web bookmarks, buddy lists and even your credit-card info follows you from PC to PC. (Customers will be forgiven if they wonder if it’s a good idea to store that much data with Microsoft, given the recent break-ins to its computer systems.)

Tweak-minded users won’t appreciate this software’s inflexibility, though. You are pretty much trapped in Microsoftland: All those personalized “my” pages are run by Microsoft or its partners—including Amazon.com for shopping, and MSNBC for news. You can’t remove the shortcut icons at the top of the page, nor can you edit where they go—you can’t have the Money icon lead you to Intuit’s Quicken site, for instance.

The appeal of the total package is something mixed. If you’re brand new to the Internet—or if you like AOL’s simplicity but are tired of all those ads—MSN Explorer is an attractive, simple and easy-to-use alternative.

But if you’ve spent a little more time online, it’s not much more than a pretty face.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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