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CYBERCULTURE | POSTCARD FROM CYBERSPACE / DANIEL AKST

MSNBC Not Clicking Yet Like Online Papers

July 22, 1996|DANIEL AKST

It's quite possible that one day in the not-so-distant future, Microsoft will be more of a publishing and broadcasting empire than a maker of personal computer operating systems and applications software.

With Encarta, Microsoft is already a leading publisher of encyclopedias. Lately it has launched a serious electronic magazine called Slate, and Microsoft also plans to launch a network of locally oriented online guides offering listings, reviews, classified ads and so forth.

Pushing further in this new direction, Microsoft has teamed up with the NBC television network to form a venture called MSNBC. The idea is to combine the news resources of NBC with the technological know-how of Microsoft for a sort of trans-media news experience.

I guess planners at these two companies are looking ahead to the day when there is enough bandwidth snaking its way into American homes so that the computer and the television set are more or less indistinguishable. I'm not sure this is a day I look forward to, but it will come along anyway, and we'll all learn to live with it.

Meanwhile, a World Wide Web version of MSNBC can be found at http://www.msnbc.com. I spent some time there during the past few days and found that whereas MSNBC on the Web was exceedingly thin on content at first, it seems to be getting better every day. Although it's still not an enormous threat to competing sources of news on the Web--or for that matter, major-league sources of news anywhere else--I doubt this will be a permanent situation. The people who run Microsoft are smart, and their lousy fledgling products usually grow up into excellent mature products.

All that said, MSNBC on the Web is still nothing to get overly excited about. Of course, I might just be in a bad mood because, unlike almost every other site on the Web, this one doesn't work well with Netscape Navigator, the browser of choice for most Internet denizens.

That's odd, I thought, as MSNBC laid type all over the graphics in a kind of HTML lasagna. Then I remembered that this was Microsoft, and MSNBC is "optimized" for Microsoft's Internet Explorer, one of the many programs gathering virtual dust on my hard drive. Lo and behold, with the company's own browser, MSNBC worked fine.

I later got it to work with Netscape, although some headlines still were badly displayed. My editor insisted it worked fine with Netscape on his machine, except when it caused Netscape to crash. Soon after hearing this, as if the problem might be some sort of psychosomatic contagion, MSNBC began crashing Netscape on my machine as well.

Browsers aside, one of MSNBC's most attractive features is the way it lets you customize your own front page of news. You can click on which news sections interest you most (world, for instance, or commerce), and it can also provide keywords of topics you're especially interested in following, such as gardening or photography or feminism.

MSNBC will even provide local weather and traffic conditions, a little local news--via local NBC affiliates--in some markets, and the day's scores for the sports you specify. You can even receive news clippings on various industries and specialty topics from Individual Inc., which has been providing customized news electronically for a while now.

Still, MSNBC on the Web doesn't come close to such extraordinary news sites as The Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost .com/), The New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/), The Wall Street Journal (http://update.wsj.com/), or even the Raleigh News and Observer (http://www.nando.net/). At the risk of seeming self-serving, I will add that the Los Angeles Times itself runs a pretty fair Web site for news at (http://www.latimes.com/). Heck, even our old friend Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com) offers free access to Reuters.

Let me stop here and state for the record that I take a backseat to no one in my readiness to criticize American newspapers. Most of them aren't very good, and as the years go by, they seem to think up new ways of making themselves worse, which is practically the only sense in which the industry shows any creativity. Newspapers don't die, it sometimes seems. They commit suicide.

Yet the advent of MSNBC reminds me of author George Gilder's thesis that the rise of the Internet offers newspapers a way to take back the initiative from broadcasters, which are now the nation's major providers of news and information. Gilder's idea is that because new technologies can accommodate a host of different interests and vast quantities of material, only the nation's large newspapers and news magazines have the enormous news-gathering resources and experience to fulfill the demand that the new media are poised to unleash.

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