21 Sep 95
So Many On-Ramps, So Little Time
1995 is the year in which online access is a requisite. Bit changes are afoot. America Online (AOL) is bulging at the seams with millions of users, and recently admitted that there was a serious security breach by hackers (whilst undercover FBI users are looking for kiddy porn peddlers), CompuServe (CIS) is overhauling their pricing structure (again), and an Internet e-mail address is about as common in the home as a fluffy rug in the bathroom. Recent versions of System 7 and OS/2 have included TCP/IP stacks and other utilities that make Internet access a built-in feature of your computer's operating system. Now, Windows 95 matches that functionality, and ups the ante by including Exchange, a user-hostile e-mail & fax applet that will claim your faxmodem to provide a convenient, if clunky, digital communications solution. (Delrina takes it further with their Communications Suite, combining excellent fax, e-mail and voice mail functions for compatible modems.)
Probably the hottest issue about Microsoft's new operating system is NOT its uncanny resemblance to Apple's System 7 and other notable GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces, also known as WIMPs, for Windows - Icons - Menus - Pointing Devices). No, the reason other online services sicked the Justice Department's anti-trust bulldogs on Bill Gates is his malevolent audacity to include the front end software for the new Microsoft Network (MSN) in the new operating system. Unfair, they cry, he's giving himself an unfair advantage by giving the software away with a product that 80% of the PC market is expected by acquire anyway. Any operating system that includes an online service and free e-mail software is going to steal users from the free market. Horse shit. Most new computers arrive with "complimentary" software for CompuServe, AOL and a host of other services -- conveniently pre-installed. I've received at least a dozen, unsolicited floppy disks with access software JUST THIS YEAR. I'm never short of floppies, thanks to Steve Case's insistence on forcing an AOL disk in my hand every time I get a magazine or buy a modem.
I've mentioned before how similar the online world is beginning to resemble TV's vast wasteland, not just in its immediacy and ease of use but in the superficiality of the dominant content as well. Well, friends, it'll be a bright day when your TV or VCR arrives with 3 months of complimentary cable service, all ready to go, no hookup or charges required. There's no knocking the "first month free" offers that abound ... its just that later on you're horribly hooked, or dreadfully bored, by it all. Don't worry about MSN -- CNN Headline news, it's not.
So, far from being part of a sneaky plot to own a piece of every pie in the world, the good news about Windows 95 is that sophisticated software for getting online, with most any Internet on-ramp, is included in the bargain. Windows comes with Dial-Up Networking for connecting with servers of many flavors, and MICROSOFT PLUS! (pitched as the "chrome trim and mag wheels" of Windows 95, but in actuality an overpriced bundle of useless tree trimming goodies, and a few must-have system utilities that were rudely excluded from the basic Windows product) even includes some server software of its own. Setting up a PPP connection routine isn't simple (yet), but the tools are all included, particularly a Dial-Up Scripting tool to automate the entire thing. You'll even be able save a World Wide Web address right on your desktop, so that you can access HotWIRED, The Utne Lens or Word right from your bootup screen. Nothing's perfect, though, and although the whole shebang works seamlessly on my portable, the Scripting tool refuses to behave on the desktop. Still, the modem status icon on my Taskbar has me spoiled; blinking lights tell me when the bytes are flowing, and "Time Online" and "Bytes Transferred" are only a click away.
Most of the online services provide similar connectivity ... they have to! It's a buyer's market, and AOL had to scramble to build the Web into its software when CIS bought out Spry, a high-profile source of MOSAIC and INTERNET-IN-A- BOX. Though AOL's execution of Web access is pretty embarrassing , CIS is stepping even further forward by linking the CompuServe Information Manager program with Mosaic so smoothly it's sexy. In the next version of their provided software, you can browse The Music Forum (where I'm a sysop), then punch a link to a Web site. WinCIM 1.5 will load Mosaic, and switch your connection to the PPP-kind that Web browsing requires while taking you to the Web server. Later, you can click a button in Mosaic to return to CIS, and WinCIM is there when you return to the CompuServe cul-de-sac. Very nice.
Windows 95 and MSN take this a very clever step further. Essentially, the Explorer/My Computer interface for browsing your hard drive(s), computer, and network, is so efficacious, that it can function as the browser for a remote network ... say ... like MSN. Voila, this is MSN's key advantage. The service essentially uses the interface you're already using on your computer, so that there's no new program to learn, no new conventions to understand, no oddball keystrokes or menu structure. This is the real reason why AOL, CIS, GEnie and Prodigy should be quaking in their boots -- MSN takes usability, and software design, a lot more seriously than these players have been doing. Though the service is slow, emaciated and still wet behind the ears, getting around is a snap.
Although MSN was also threatening to compete pricewise, in a really merciless way, they lost their nerve at the last moment. They'd hinted that access to the service might only incur a monthly charge, and hourly rates would be determined by the "value added" areas on the service that you perused. In a numbingly stupid move, MSN opened its doors by charging $4.95 a month for a system that remains rather slow and content-starved,... only allots you 3 hours a month for free. AOL and CIS are (as of this date) offering 5 free hours. After your complimentary hours, MSN costs $2.50 an hour.
Why is this numbingly stupid? In a letter to MSN Beta testers, head honcho Russell Siegelman explained that a study of users indicated they averaged 3 hours a month. Well, gee, Russell, could the following factors have effected that study?
- These were all Beta testers;
- The Beta testers only used certain functions, and had to utilize OTHER services to browse the Internet and Web ... because MSN didn't provide these functions until the summer;
- The Beta testers weren't necessarily interested in testing MSN all day long -- they had real jobs, with real responsibilities, and playing with MSN didn't factor in;
- There wasn't much in the way of content for most of the Beta period;
- The system was unavailable every Thursday for upgrades;
- When the system was available, it was as slow as molasses.
On the other extreme, MSN promised to control growth on the system with the Assured Customer Satisfaction plan, in which new memberships will be unavailable once the service has 500,000 users signed up. Once this quota is achieved, the techies will evaluate what's needed to handle a greater number. Those who're familiar with AOL's aggravating system slow-downs, hangs and outright unavailability will appreciate this sensibility. I hear European users are miffed, though; heh, c'est la vie.
Of course, MSN is no more than another cul-de-sac like the others, and so also offers Web browsing and Internet access. A ho-hum Internet Explorer kit is included in the Plus! pack, as if that makes it a bargain. With third party utilities finishing the job, the Web will be (as I mentioned) just a click away from your Windows desktop. Whether this means you're closer to it ... or you're closer to it ... remains to be seen. But from what I've heard of Web developers inventing ever more sophisticated ways to tracking your interests and spending habits and catering to you more insidiously,... it means that the online world is going to nudge your TV out of the way and take over as the addictive entertainment resource for the entire family.
It bears noting that all of these services offer some unique, home-grown content to keep you at home. Files, news, entertainment, interactive events (join a conference with Cindy Crawford or Michael Jackson) and much more await you ... if you're willing to buy the ticket. If not ... then perhaps you want a direct feed to the Internet itself, with no middleman. No wonder Windows 95 includes the direct connect toys -- Bill wants you using Microsoft communications software, even without MSN.
Locally (at least here in Euphemera), Internet providers are all but knocking on your door. Offers vary, but I've seen upwards of 150 hours per month for only $30. That's a lot of Web browsing. Speaking of which, they don't want you just browsing, they'll give you a Web site of your very own. And these upstarts will give you a bushel of software, too, so you could conceivably have three or four Web browsers on your system. Set up, jack in, log on ... and you're heating the spoon of hundreds of USENET newsgroups (some of them pretty exotic, as you may've heard), e-mail, software FTP sites, you name it. It's all out there, and (like New York City) it's all happening every minute of the day. Isn't this what they promised television was going to be like?
-- D.B. Spalding
ONLINE SITES mentioned in this article are listed below. Naturally, they may change after I publish this column, so don't blame me if they go POOF! (All addresses follow the convention HTTP://WWW.[address])
Utne Lens: utne.com/lens
(C) Copyright 1995 D.B. Spalding. All rights reserved. Please send e-mail for licensing information.
A self-described multicareerist, D.B. Spalding is a writer, musician, independent radio producer, computer consultant and online sysop; he writes frequently about music, film, computing and the mass- and multimedia.