Still trying to make headlines

Rupert Murdoch's outdated online service is about to be revamped. Wendy Grossman reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Delphi was the first national US online service to offer Internet access, in November 1992. Bought by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation in 1994, it opened up in the UK at the beginning of 1994. But it has barely been marketed in the past year and, like Microsoft Network, is now planning an Internet- based relaunch.

What the company calls the "legacy" service is, largely, a set of forums, or conversation areas. The interface is a series of menus intended to make navigation easy for newcomers - you just type the first few letters of whatever choice you want.

This style palls very quickly, because there are few short cuts, and day after day you're faced with the same set of menus you have to read to find the area you want. You can type choices ahead (assuming you know what they are) so that, for example, to get to Delphi's Usenet reader, you could type "GO IN(ternet) USE(net) USE(net reader)" to work the menu system. But you have to remember the exact sequence.

For services that you use only occasionally or stumble across accidentally, it can be almost impossible to remember how you got there. There are a few Windows-based navigation tools for Delphi, but most of these seem to do little other than put a Windows frame around the existing interface; they will not find things for you. Non-technical new users also complain that the system seems to expect them to know instinctively how to do things such as download files.

Delphi's UK service has its own menu structure, member directory, and forums, although UK users can access the US side of the service easily from any system prompt by typing "GO US". There are UK areas such as science fiction and politics, but some of these have had only one message in the past month. The US side is far more lively. Delphi does not release UK membership figures, but the service has about 125,000 member worldwide.

The system offers a few of the same information services as CompuServe, such as the AP news wire, the Official Airlines Guide, and weather reports, as well as the Times and Sunday Times headlines.

The most interesting part of the service, however, is probably its UK Web site (http://www.delphi.co.uk), which has attempted to bring professional quality photojournalism to the Web. From there you can also gain access to the Times Web site. The company says that the reason Delphi has stagnated is that like Microsoft, it did not expect the sudden explosion of the Net. It was engaged in building a new proprietary interface for the service, which was due to be launched last year.

Then, in August, Delphi completely changed its plans and announced a deal with the US long-distance provider MCI to build a service based entirely on Net standards.

The launch date is expected to be in the first quarter in the US, and somewhat later in the UK. A company spokesperson says the new service will "really help users to make sense of the Net and make it easy to use". Delphi is licensing Netscape and other applications for use with the service, and expects content to come from News Corporation's many empires as well as its own editorial staff.

Delphi can be contacted on 0171-757 7080.

Subscription costs pounds 10, which includes four hours a month, plus pounds 4 for every additional hour; or pounds 20 for 20 hours a month, plus pounds 1.80 for extra hour.

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