AOL and MSN: New, but Barely Improved

The latest versions of the leading ISPs offer attractive, but minor changes

By the time a product reaches version eight, the odds are good that a new release will not bring revolutionary change. So for all the hoopla surrounding AOL 8.0 from America Online (AOL ) and MSN 8 from Microsoft (MSFT ), these new versions of the two top Internet access packages are evolutionary steps. Each includes features that will be attractive to current customers, but neither offers people a compelling reason to abandon their existing service.

AOL 8.0 focuses on keeping the service's 35 million members happy and giving them a reason to stay with AOL as they gradually move from dial-up access to broadband. AOL offers high-speed access through several DSL carriers and its corporate sibling, Time Warner Cable, for $54.95 a month. Bring-your-own access customers, who already have broadband, can subscribe for $14.95 per month; unlimited dial-up is $23.90. AOL maintains its traditional approach, providing lots of chat rooms, discussion groups, e-commerce, and information sources within the service's "walled garden." Broadband users get additional content, such as movie trailers (especially from corporate sibling Warner Bros.) and many channels of music on Radio@AOL.

Microsoft's latest offering is the umpteenth overhaul of MSN, which has been bleeding money for eight years. The newest MSN will be mostly a paid service. will continue to exist as a free portal, but MSN Explorer software, a simplified version of the Internet Explorer browser, will now be available only to subscribers. MSN, too, is promoting broadband with the introduction of more video. Microsoft offers broadband access for $39.95 to $49.95 through Verizon and Qwest DSL and Charter Communications cable. Bring-your-own access is $9.95; unlimited dial-up is $21.95. While there is some exclusive Microsoft content, including the Encarta encyclopedia, MSN is still much more of a portal to general Web content than is AOL.

This reflects the fact that, while AOL and MSN appear to compete head-to-head, they are actually going after different market segments. AOL's target is a less tech-minded customer who values safety and simplicity above sophistication and advanced features and who views an AOL subscription as membership in a community. As posters around AOL's Dulles (Va.) headquarters kept reminding developers, "at AOL, members always come first." Microsoft puts more emphasis on technology and less on warm fuzzies.

The difference between them shows clearly in two areas: mail and personalization. I find AOL 8.0's e-mail all but unusable, but unlike me, the typical AOL member doesn't have to manage 250 or more messages a day. An AOL mailbox has three fixed folders--new mail, old mail, and sent mail--because AOL execs decided to keep mail simple. There are no user-controlled filtering capabilities. But a "Neighborhood Watch" window will pop up when you receive a message from someone not in your address book that also contains an image--just in case that image might be objectionable. (A feature planned for next year, code-named Photon, will allow AOL users to read their messages through standard mail programs.)

MSN, by contrast, has sharply enhanced the mail program. It scrapped the Web-based program it has shared with Hotmail in favor of a slightly simplified version of Outlook Express with a wealth of user options. For example, it lets you create personal mail filters to automate message handling. MSN also offers junk-mail control far more effective than AOL's. And unlike AOL, which simply discards mail it deems junk, MSN saves it for inspection in its own folder.

AOL 8.0, again in the interest of simplicity, offers minimal personalization of your home page: Users can choose one of six preset pages featuring varied combinations of news, sports, and entertainment. MSN lets you customize just about every feature of the home page. It also offers glitzy features, such as letting users in different locations browse the same Web page together.

Both services offer many of the same basic functions, from Web browsing to parental control (a longtime area of AOL strength where MSN has caught up). If I had to choose, I'd go with MSN, but that's not to say it's better. This is really a case of different services for different customers, and choice is good.


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