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Mixed bag for MSN

Pointed enthusiasm for the Microsoft Network can't overcome the criticisms of some current users who are already complaining about the new service.

The hand is everywhere--on billboards, magazines, bus shelters, and TV commercials. The hand is supposed to point to the Web-only Microsoft Network, but its pointed enthusiasm can't overcome the criticisms of some current users who are already complaining about the new service.

The new MSN won't officially be ready until next week when Microsoft plans to start shipping the CD-ROMs that users need to access the proprietary content on the new Web-based MSN, according to Larry Cohen, group product manager for the service. MSN, which originally was slated for consumer use in early November, will actually roll out over the next few weeks, he said, and bits and pieces of the new Web-based service are already on the Net.

Analysts and many of the 106,000 beta testers have praised the new MSN for its multimedia-intensive interface that has features such as talk shows and news coming at you like television.

"For the most part, customer feedback has been very, very positive," Cohen said. "Customers are really thrilled about it. We're hearing that people like the performance better."

But some people just don't like change. Many of the 1.6 million members that pay for the existing proprietary service, now referred to as the "classic" MSN, are upset that they will be forced to switch from a service they've say they've grown to love. The old MSN will be phased out and will disappear altogether by the end of the first half of 1997.

"The feeling I get is 99 percent of people on the Microsoft Network absolutely hate this new deal," said Frank Dysart, Jr., who sometimes spends 12 to 16 hours a day on MSN. Dysart said the new service might look good but the graphics make it much slower. He also liked the old form of chat and dislikes the cartoon characters that represent users in the new chat form.

"They want to turn this thing into an entertainment medium like television, and computers don't work like television," he said.

Many current users have found friends on the old MSN, meeting each other in the service's complex of chat rooms. The new MSN has fewer chat rooms and threatens to break up that established community.

"I have met many wonderful people on MSN, and even my future spouse," one user said. "I love the old MSN and its format. I always know where to find my friends when I sign in, and that is something I am afraid of with the new MSN. The temporary chat rooms just don't cut it."

In fact, the new MSN, like the new AOL, already has a Web site dedicated to its critics called the official MSN2 hate site.

Several current members told CNET that they felt MSN has not listened to their complaints and wished they could stay on the existing MSN service, which was launched only a year ago with almost no advertising expenditure.

But with such a site, any radical revisions are bound to catch some flak, analysts said.

Mark Mooradian, an analyst at Jupiter Communications, agreed that the service "is still moving extremely slowly," but he thinks the gripers will get used to it. "I don't think that the old MSN subscribers are in for a grand disappointment. Ultimately, it's going to be a more compelling service."

Kate Delhagen, an analyst with Forrester Research, added that customers are often reluctant to change. "I'm not surprised that there's grumbling. It's not a gentle upgrade; it's a complete overhaul. Maybe the problem is the current users weren't expecting it or weren't prepared for it. They were getting used to a certain kind of treatment--low graphics--and all of the sudden, it's changed."

Cohen assured that MSN has been listening to all the feedback, good and bad. "They're all being listened to and evaluated," he said. "We have meetings every single evening to talk about feedback on the top level."

Plus, he added, retaining current members--most of whom he said are pleased by the new service--is essential if MSN is to reach its goal: doubling the number of members by June 1997.

Users who can't wait two to three weeks for CD-ROMS to be shipped can begin picking them up next week at select retail sites, such as Tower Records, United Artist Theaters, and Egghead Software, according to Cohen.