To the rousing sounds of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the launch of "the first multilingual, multimedia online service made by Europeans for Europeans" just before Christmas was a high-minded affair.
Europe Online would be a revolutionary service that "reflects the diversity of Europe's cultures, feelings, sensitivities and, I hope, its souls," declared the company's chairman, Dr Christian Schwarz-Schilling. It would get "mothers talking to mothers" across language barriers, said Candace Johnson, one of the founders.
Behind such rhetoric, the company knows it has a fight on its hands to establish itself against stiff competition, both from other online services and the wider Internet. Indeed, the latter's popularity forced it to abandon its original AT&T Interchange operating platform just six weeks before launch and embrace the Netscape browser and the World Wide Web.
Using Europe Online and the Web is, therefore, a "seamless experience", with direct links to Web sites they think will interest subscribers. Yet far from stealing a lead for Europe Online, this last-minute decision probably only saved it from oblivion, because its main rivals are now following exactly the same route.
Still, Europe Online holds some good cards, particularly its name and the fact that it is genuinely European (perhaps too much so for the sceptical British palate). When you reach its home page, you could be forgiven for thinking you have come through to the European Union - a circle of 12 yellow arrows pointing outwards appears on a blue background.
Although based in Luxembourg, Europe Online is, in fact, a grouping of semi-autonomous national services, produced by journalists and designers in each state. There are services for the UK, France, Germany and Luxembourg, as well as an international link, each one with unique content and a distinctive look.
In addition to the facilities you would expect, such as e-mail and a range of news wires, Europe Online offers a selection of games, online consumer magazines, reference databases, home shopping and the Alp-Net translation service. It claims to have 1,000 different services and this list will keep growing-the Longman Dictionary should appear on the UK site soon. The contents menus work well, although it is inexcusably slack that there are no scroll bars on each national home page, which means small-screen users cannot see the whole area.
The company is aiming itself at the mass market and hopes to have more than 3 million subscribers by 2000. To that end it has decided to risk the brickbats and restrict access to the naughtier newsgroups. "Research shows that one of the main things stopping parents going online is the fear that their kids will be able to get to this sort of stuff," says Jerry Roest, the UK managing director.
More than pounds 100m is thought to be going into the venture over the first few years. Shareholders include large media groups such as Pearson and Burda of Germany, as well as AT&T.
The company claims to be offering local dial-up access with at least 14,400bps across 80 per cent of Western Europe already. The UK pricing structure has yet to be announced, although it will differ little from that of its competitors. Until the end of February, anyone with Netscape Navigator 2.0 can access Europe Online free. After that, you will be asked for your credit card details.
Europe Online can be reached on 0800 106610 or at http://www.europeonline.com/
The service will be free until the end of February.Reuse content