Are Bill Gates and Steve Case the Web's Ali and Frazier? They're its heavyweight champs, with MSN and America Online (AOL) atop the ratings. Like Ali, Gates drives millions to distraction, while Case, like Frazier, doesn't stir us up. And with MSN getting better buzz, a showdown is at hand. (Dare I say, a Thrilla in Vanilla?) But can the new MSN really challenge AOL? If they got in a ring, the play-by-play might go like this.
Round 1. Auto Channels. Case jabs with content from Autoweb.com. Gates hits back with better-written reviews, virtually the same car-price data, and a better layout. Round: Gates.
Round 2. Instant Messaging. These services let you chat with buddies online in real time. MSN tries to take things further by using its instant messaging service to carry phone calls over the Web. But I had trouble making the phone service work. AOL's instant messaging does less--it sticks to simple text messages--but it's reliable and has a huge audience. Round: Case.
Round 3. City Guides/Entertainment. These sections tell you what's up in your nabe. Gates set up Microsoft Sidewalk (MSFT) to do this but it wasn't a hit, and MSN now uses content from CitySearch.com. MSN has fewer listings, and it has no punch to counter AOL's MovieFone service, which lets you buy tickets online. AOL wipes up the sidewalk with MSN. Round: Case.
Round 4. Travel. MSN's Expedia.com is good, but AOL Travel is better. Gates leads with a strong fare-search engine and a range of package deals, including adventures from partner Away.com. But Case has similar technology and adventure travel from GorpTravel.com. Then he decks Gates with lively writing from Travel & Leisure magazine. Round: Case.
Round 5. Music. Neither AOL nor MSN has interesting music-download services--yet. But each has tons of commercial-free Web radio. MSN has 128 stations in 24 genres, with software that lets you choose a station not only by type of music but also by what kind of mood you want to set. For example, choices include "Workout," "Let's Drink," and "Let's Make Love." Slick. AOL's Spinner section has more stations but less imagination. Microsoft loses for refusing to let MSN Music play over Netscape browsers or Real Audio streaming-audio software. Round: Case.
Round 6. Shopping. Eshops.msn.com hits Case with 88 stores. Case swings back: AOL's alphabetical list of stores hits 88 in the Cs. Round: Case.
Round 7. Personal Finance. MSN recruited about 50 finance writers and devised stock-screening software to give MSN a good personal-finance magazine. But AOL has its own stock screens and data, plus magazines like Smart Money, Fortune, and BusinessWeek. MSN gives you dozens of guys who once wrote for big publications. AOL gives you hundreds who still do. Round: Case.
Round 8. News. MSNBC.com is livelier and better-looking than AOL News. Round: Gates.
Round 9. Look and Feel. Remember Web smartboys mocking AOL's simplicity? Where are they now? Listing houses they can't afford on AOL House and Home? AOL's similar-looking channels help us find things fast. Each MSN channel looks different: Some look great, others don't. Round: Case.
Case wins--but Ali and Frazier fought three times, and Ali won the last two. And industry sages say Microsoft perfects products in the 3.0 version. MSN is at 2.0--not yet AOL-worthy, but no joke. And Mr. Softie will keep punching. He always does. By Timothy J. Mullaney