The Future of the Internet Looks a Lot Like Television
In early October, Microsoft invited media and other special guests from around the planet to Redmond for coffee, muffins, and a sneak peek at the "new" Microsoft Network. An impressive lineup of Microsoft execs paraded before the crowd, including Slate editor Michael Kinsley and Mr. Bill himself, both of whom received applause from an audience that we were told was a collection of Microsoft's biggest critics and skeptics. The day's other presenters -- who are actually much more responsible for the company's online future (including Patty Stonesifer, senior VP of interactive media; Bob Bejan, executive director of MSN; and Peter Neupert, VP of strategic relations) -- spun and varnished the new service as a new paradigm for the vapid reality that is cyberspace.On cue, Seattle's Post Intelligencer's next-day, front-page coverage read: "Microsoft Clicks On a TV Look: Microsoft has seen the future of the Internet -- and it looks a lot like television." Convinced that the Web is tedious and tiresome to read, Microsoft pitched the new MSN as a television model, distancing itself from other "Internet service providers" like America Online. Starting in November, the first "episodes" of MSN's "fall season" became available for $19.95 per month. According to the forced-metaphor-speak, MSN is navigated through six "channels," organizing a total of 15 "shows" (each complete with real live commercials). The network's home page boots up in black, with a marquee in frosted white -- "On Stage" -- at the top of the screen. Rectangular buttons mark six channels along the bottom of the page, while in between, a rotation of frantically animated promotions for MSN shows takes up the bulk of the screen, signaling the real emphasis of the new network. Click on one of the channel buttons for a cascade of shows, take a breath, and dive into Microsoft's brave new world of online content. MSN shows, despite the metaphor, are rather like other Web sites the rest of us call "online magazines." Kinsley's Slate, for example, happens to be organized exactly like a magazine, with a table of contents and "back of the book" section, yet in MSN parlance Slate becomes a featured "show" on MSN Channel 1.Other MSN shows do take better advantage of the Web's bells and whistles -- struggling against the dreaded magazine format. There's a show called Rifff, which lets users make a pre-recorded Herbie Hancock chord progression sound more "cheesy" or "happy" at the touch of a virtual button. Then there's the feminist-bent Underwire of Channel 4, which features an "interactive" section that tracks a users' height/weight and calculates recommended workout schedules. (No comment.) Microsoft calls Channel 5 a venue for "the latest and hippest issues, fashion music and culture -- about the cutting edge, for those on it." And at the end of the dial, there's Channel 6 for kids, with a pen-pal matchmaker, comic strip, and horoscope.In fairness, there's little doubt that the Internet will become increasingly television-like, and safe bets are on Microsoft to lead the way, especially through their partnership with NBC News. But for the time being, that partnership's online component (www.msnbc.com) remains very much reading-based and therefore more like a newspaper than a television station. Some MSN shows do rely heavily on audio, especially Rifff, but the Web is still for readers -- which remains the most basic complaint about the medium.Reading is increasingly seen as a chore, while we'll gladly watch almost anything on television. By pushing the metaphor, Microsoft hopes to lure people into watching their computer screens, an appliance that looks a lot like a television but still behaves more like a piece of paper. The tactic comes off as manipulative and condescending. MSN vice president Laura Jennings opened last week's conference explaining that her network's first market target was the estimated 10 million computer users with modems but no online experience. Repeatedly, she said MSN was not targeting subscribers to other online services like AOL or CompuServe. In other words, MSN wants inexperienced users and is tempting them with illusions of grandeur. Experienced Netizens be wary. Presentations on MSN's truly innovative projects followed the morning session and a salmon lunch on the campus basketball court. A team of presenters led by VP of applications and content John Neilson showed off new products so impressive on their own that all pretense of the television metaphor was dropped completely.The first service, an automated travel agent (www.expedia.com) can book airline, hotel, and car rental reservations for all the world's ports of call. Hotels may be browsed by amenity or proximity to the beach, airlines by time of departure, or cars by price. Expedia sorts more information than a conventional travel agent could possibly manage in more usable format than its online competitors, including the Internet Travel Network (www.itn.net). The service will reap revenues in a number of ways (including subscriptions and advertisements, like the MSN shows), but its real advantage comes from collecting the standard 10 percent travel-agent commission on every transaction, at no direct cost to consumers.MSN's personal finance title Investor (www.investor.msn.com) is also transaction-based, tracking stock portfolios over any specified period of time, offering news clips on publicly traded companies via MSNBC, and facilitating actual market trades through a partnership with Charles Schwab.The all-day MSN conference concluded with a 45-minute question-and-answer session starring Bill Gates. He was the only speaker unconcerned with impressing the collected skeptics. He yawned frequently, slouched in his chair, and said little. MSN VP Laura Jennings actually fielded many of the questions intended for Gates, but her spin seemed dizzyingly out of touch. Earlier in the day, to illustrate the importance of the medium, Jennings cited "the precious last moments of the [presidential] debate" where Bob Dole laughably pandered to wired voters in directing them to Owww.dolekemp96.org." (Jennings' audience had enough sense to chuckle at her for that one.)Hard questions about the original and disappointing MSN were deflected with news that the network currently supports 1 million subscribers, well above Microsoft's publicly stated projections. But MSN captured those subscribers mostly on the back of Windows 95, which funneled users directly to a MSN sign-up icon while, in some cases, disabling access to the Internet provided by other servers. Microsoft products are designed to work best in conjunction with the array of other company efforts already in place. That's the strategy behind the company's genius, but it's also a kind of team play that often sacrifices inspired ingenuity of a single product to the priority of network interfacing and overall market game plan. Most MSN shows, for example, will be unavailable outside the network subscription; want one, pay for them all. (Expedia and Investor are exceptions, for the time being.)Taken in total, MSN comes off as so polished, so market-niche hungry, and so voluminous in content that it seems a project more bent on market share than reflective of the individual creativity and independent spontaneity that built the Web.