Magazine article Online

Windows 95: Microsoft Goes Online

Magazine article Online

Windows 95: Microsoft Goes Online

Article excerpt

Microsoft Network, Microsoft's new online service, has much in common with Windows 95 (with which it comes bundled). Both were accompanied by fanfare and hype that exceeded their actual significance. Both will be widely adopted, but this will be due as much to their familiarity as to their superiority. Both are based closely on concepts developed by others. Finally, both are refinements rather than far-reaching innovations.

Microsoft Network (MSN) offers no radical breakthroughs, but is instead a smooth, attractive version of a consumer online service and its standard elements. With a few noteworthy exceptions, its content can be found elsewhere on consumer and professional services. Its arrangement will also be immediately familiar to any experienced consumer service user. What is new is a sleek, powerful Windows 95 interface that deftly integrates the various MSN sections as well as MSN with other Windows applications and the Internet.

OLD WINE, NEW BOTTLE

In content, MSN has the basic consumer service triad:

1. Informational databases for light research, especially in business and finance. These include some solid products from major business database producers.

2.Communications, especially user-maintained discussion areas for professional, hobby, and personal interests.

3. Transactional services.

(It is now time to add a fourth piece-internet connectivity. Any consumer service worth its salt has to have smooth Internet connections, including a Web browser.)

This model for consumer services was pioneered years ago by Compuserve, and has since been adopted by Delphi, Genie, America Online, Prodigy, and just about everyone else in the game. They are all simply responding to a consumer market that has firmly insisted upon what it does and does not want. So accepted are these features that it is accurate to speak of consumer online as a "generic" service. MSN follows the accepted pattern.

Under these conditions, products distinguish themselves by their packaging, and MSN has some very nice wrappings. MSN takes advantage of the Windows 95 look-and-feel, which is designed to minimize the sense that you are working on a computer. Many Windows operations are tucked neatly off to the side, to place your full attention on the application itself.

MSN actually looks less like a computer application than a glossy, mass-market magazine, with an appealing mixture of photos, graphics, and text. Several major sections open with a graphics-laden "table of contents" page that is updated daily with announcements and hypertext links to featured departments.

THE MSN FLOOR PLAN

MSN's basic organizational unit is the Forum. Each of the dozens of forums contains some combination of informational, communications, and transactional services. Some forums, including many in the business areas, are sponsored by third-party information producers, and concentrate on research and reference information. Many, especially in the hobby areas, are user-oriented bulletin boards. Still others are primarily online storefronts, with product information and commercial services. The forum format introduces an element of consistency across MSN, but it sometimes makes it difficult to determine just what sort of content you're dealing with. The forums are clustered into a dozen broad subject categories: business, sports, hobbies, news, computers, etc.

Access to categories and forums follows Windows icon conventions. There is also direct access via forum name and a simple keyword search capability. MSN can be user-adapted with the "Favorite Places' section, where commonly-used sections can be listed on a menu, or even placed as an icon on the basic Windows program.

MSN is intuitive (for Windows users, that is) and efficient. It is easy to move back and forth among sections by clicking icons, using keywords, or by following links from the table of contents screens. …

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