A grower, but much slower

Steve Homer thinks Microsoft Network has a future, but it's taking its time

At the end of last year, with much hoopla, Microsoft relaunched the Microsoft Network (MSN) for the second time. Once again, Microsoft has tried to push computing forward, but has left many ordinary computer users behind.

Installing the new version of MSN can be a nightmare on a "normal" machine. Microsoft says that MSN will run on a machine with 8Mb of memory, but installing it on a machine with 16Mb took several hours. The procedure crashed and left me connecting via Virgin Online rather than direct to MSN.

With 24Mb of memory, installation went more smoothly, but while competitors such as CompuServe, America Online, Netcom and Virgin could all connect, MSN would not.

"We have to comply strictly with Windows 95 policy," said a harried technical support person. The only way to get any sort of operation was to disable my fax and voicemail system.

But installation is by no means the end of MSN's woes. It is painfully slow to use - not because the Internet is slow, but because Microsoft is trying to be so clever.

It has tried to make MSN look like a television station. When you start it, you choose between six channels ranging from news and weather to arts and natural history. Loading the welcome announcement, music and on-screen "buttons" for these channels gives you enough time to make a cup of coffee.

One part of the initial greeting is a small plane flying towards you. But is it really worth an extra 20-second wait for a pretty graphic? For most of us, it's not. And I suspect that for a population used to clicking channels instantly, having to wait more than a minute to access a new channel is unacceptable. This cannot be put down to the Internet; this was timed with a direct connection to MSN at 8am, when there would have been almost no UK or US customers on line.

Another problem is that the channels are American-dominated. One major offering was a programme called Inventing America. This history of invention was interesting in its own right, but with the fancy graphics, music and commentary, the pages were so slow to load as to make the whole "show" unusable.

I also had trouble finding out about changing the password, and information from technical support was wrong twice. The browser (the screen you use to access information) lets you down in all sorts of ways if you are used to Netscape Navigator or even Microsoft's own Internet Explorer.

Does all this mean that MSN is dead? Certainly not. Microsoft has such a habit of demanding more powerful hardware to make its software run that it almost seems to be in the pay of Intel and modem manufacturers. Microsoft took four attempts to get Windows right with Windows 3.1, and that took a lot of power to run properly.

While this version of MSN may fail ordinary consumers, on a high-speed ISDN line with a fast processor and plenty of memory, MSN's television style should look fine. One thing is sure - MSN's competitors have not been lulled into believing that MSN is anything but a major threat in the futuren

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