The programming wizards at Microsoft Network sure know to how to make your computer stand up and do tricks.
Without a doubt, MSN is the best-looking online service in cyberspace. It has the slickest presentation, the most colorful graphics and the cutest little sound files, all of which take advantage of every capability your computer has to offer.
And it has just revamped its content with new features designed to appeal to kids, Gen Xers and their parents - the ones who pay MSN's $19.95 monthly fee.
But even with all the neat things to look at, the third-most popular online service - and the one regarded as the biggest competitive threat to America Online - still lacks one big thing: a strong sense of community.
MSN has more than 2 million members, but whenever I log on,I feel like I'm wandering through an amusement park after closing time. It feels empty.
What would make MSN the best deal in cyberspace is a better sense that there are other users online sharing the experience.
Company officials say they are introducing features that will let users interact with each other. How effective they are remains to be seen.
MSN garnered a lot of attention last week when it unveiled its "Spring '97 season." It axed a dozen content areas, or "shows," from its OnStage section and added 14 new ones.
Among the new offerings:
- Walt Disney Co.'s new Daily Blast, a content area aimed at kids aged 3 to 12. It's free to MSN subscribers but costs Internet users $4.95 a month, or $39.95 a year.
- Duckman Presents, an irreverent site based on the USA Network show by the same name.
- Internet Gaming Zone: A matching service that is supposed to link you to other players of online games.
- Hard Rock Live, a site that takes users behind the scenes of major rock concerts.
- (AT)Watercooler, a site devoted to workplace concerns.
Other content areas focus on parenting issues, environmental concerns, UFOs and Hollywood celebrities. One, called E-String, promises to teach you how to play the guitar.
Of all of the ones I tried, the most fun was Duckman Presents. It has a wisecracker attitude, a collection of rude sounds and a series of bright, colorful graphics.
The others gave me trouble. In some cases, the graphics took too long to load. Other times, while going into a new area, my machine locked up for no apparent reason and I had to reboot.
But the worst thing - in the roughly 10 hours that I spent perusing the features - was that I found hardly anyone to talk to.
Most of the new content areas are supposed to have their own chat rooms where you will find people with similar interests.But when I was there, the chat rooms were either empty or weren't working.
That doesn't mean that MSN has no one chatting at all. It does. In fact, MSN's Comic Chat service, which lets you chat with on-screen cartoon characters, is very novel-looking and appears to have at least 200 to 300 people chatting any one particular time.
But there are several problems with MSN's chat service. One is that it has no capacity for finding friends who are online at the same time you are. There is no way to send instant messages. Such a system on other online services lets you carry on private conversations outside a chat room.
If you want to chat online with a distant friend, you have to arrange it ahead of time via e-mail, and then hope they show up on time in the right place. Otherwise, you're out of luck.
Also, Comic Chat is found in an area separate from the OnStage section, meaning that you have to click several times and "drill down" into the service to find a chat room that might interest you.
By comparison, America Online has features such as Buddy Lists, which tell you instantly whether your friends are online. It allows you to send instant messages, and chat lobbies are just a single click away.
As almost everyone knows, AOL has had its share of technical problems in recent months when it signed up more subscribers than its computer system can handle.
You would think that AOL's woes would have been a golden opportunity for MSN to show off its technical prowess. But that hasn't been the case. In the past two months, MSN's e-mail service has gone on the blink twice.
Just this week, MSN decided to double its e-mail capacity and took the service down for 36 hours while technicians installed the upgrade.
For all of those people looking for an alternative to AOL, MSN still has a way to go. It offers great content, but not a lot of community.
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