- The Washington Times - Monday, February 2, 2004

The scrappy newcomer is up against an older veteran. The newcomer is sporting a new look and new features. The veteran also has recently retooled, and if he’s not spoiling for a fight, neither is he going to duck a challenge.

I’m not talking about the Super Bowl or the ongoing Democratic presidential primaries.

Rather, it’s Microsoft Corp. versus AOL, which used to be the first name of AOL Time Warner but is now just a Time Warner subsidiary. America Online’s naming may be diminished, but even after losing 2.2 million subscribers in 2003, it still has more than 24.3 million monthly customers in this country. MSN, by contrast, claims to reach 8 million users each month, both for its free Web portal, MSN.com, and its paid Internet service.

Head to head, the two firms are vying for subscriber dollars. Microsoft wants you to spend almost $22 a month for its dial-up Internet service and MSN features. Bring your own access such as cable Internet or digital subscriber line, and the cost drops to $9.95. It’s in the “BYOA” segment that MSN apparently hopes to make a splash.

Why spend $10 per month for the Microsoft way to the Internet, particularly if you have a broadband link? Probably for the same reason those 24.3 million AOLers spend money for their access: You can use a Web browser and jump on the Internet. If you’d like a little order and structure to the experience or perhaps a little hand-holding, having an online ally seems a smart way to go.

The question, then, is whether MSN offers enough features for the price. It’s not AOL, but MSN Premium does have some nice features. For one, you can customize a home page to reflect your own interests in terms of headlines, sports, weather, even tracking EBay auction items.

Also, MSN Premium’s e-mail looks like the Web-based Hotmail service. You can store e-mails on your own computer, but you also can access your MSN e-mail while on the road via the Hotmail site. You also can add other mail accounts to the offering, letting you track, say, work mail from home. There are parental controls that can keep your children away from trouble.

Among the features of MSN likely to interest users is access to an online version of Microsoft Money, a personal finance management program, and Microsoft Encarta, an online encyclopedia.

There’s a way to edit and share photos online, online chat rooms, entertainment listings and a search engine.

I’m also a fan of the MSN “Dashboard” that sits on the right side of the MSN browser window. It offers an “at-a-glance” look at a variety of personal interests; from your e-mail in-box to weather forecasts to traffic alerts, and a click will take you to more detailed information. The trade-off: You lose some “desk space” if the Dashboard is always open.

There’s also a version of MSN for Macintosh OS X. It’s good but can bear improvement. Among the shortcomings: On the Mac, my personalized MSN “home page” displayed, but without listing my in-box contents. I’ll need to spend more time with the Mac version before a final verdict.

The same can be said for my PC-based MSN experience: it’s still early and not every feature has been tested. But my initial impression is that, for Windows users, this isn’t a bad service, and one worth investigating.

E-mail MarkKel@aol.com or visit www.kellner.us.

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