So what does the competition have to offer?
Of the other big, name-brand Internet service providers (ISP) chasing after America Online, EarthLink has gone the farthest in trying to rethink the online experience and incorporate some of AOL's one-stop-shop approach. Instead of the usual Internet Explorer or Netscape browser, EarthLink offers its own all-in-one package, EarthLink 5.0 (Win 95-98, with a Mac version planned), which bundles a browser and an e-mail program inside one simple, icon-illustrated interface.
Sign on and you're greeted with a ''personal start page'' that, most important, lets you know if you've got mail -- just like AOL's Welcome screen. It's also easily customizable; you can select to have information from a number of categories greeting you and you can easily determine what priority each subject should have (travel, finance, horoscope) on your page.
To the right, a smaller rectangular panel called a ''Sidecar'' constantly scrolls stock information and news updates in separate sub-panels. If a headline interests you, you can point to it with your mouse, which causes the ticker to pause; click on it and you'll connect through to a related news story. Great stuff, if you're a news junkie.
Unfortunately, this way of breaking up a browser window doesn't reflect how Web sites are designed -- when you start surfing the Web, the right side of the screen is blocked by the Sidecar, so you have to scroll from side to side of every page or park the Sidecar to do your surfing. It's easy enough to fire the Sidecar back up again, but it's also not hard to imagine folks shutting it down and never thinking to turn it back on again.
What's more helpful to AOL defectors is EarthLink's inclusion of AOL's Instant Messenger software, which lets you keep your AOL ''buddy lists'' and exchange quick messages with your pals over the Internet, just as if you'd never left. And EarthLink's unlimited-use plan costs $2 a month less than AOL's.
If EarthLink has done the most tinkering -- no other provider combines e-mail and Web access in one big program, AOL-style -- Microsoft's MSN (Win 95-98) is the service with the most eye and brain candy. Its start page -- also available to non-members by visiting www.msn.com -- is a portal packed with links to news stories at MSNBC and Slate, topped with a random grab bag of celebrity news and self-help tips that feature headlines that sometimes might as well have been lifted from the Onion parody site (''Pamela Lee doll: Has Barbie met her match?''). This page can be extensively customized and also alerts you whenever new e-mail arrives.
Thanks to Microsoft's vast empire of content properties and partnerships, you can pretty much accomplish or find out anything within a click or two of the start page here: find a job, buy a car, purchase advertising space on Yahoo -- whatever you do for kicks online. On the one hand, this service is a reminder of how bewilderingly enormous Microsoft is; on the other hand, if you surf the Web trolling for entertainment, there's enough content here to rival America Online. It's just too bad that this ISP, alone of the biggies, isn't Mac-compatible. It's also unfortunate that it doesn't undercut AOL's $21.95 monthly unlimited-access rate -- it even raised its own fees to match AOL's last fall.
I didn't find very much added-value Internet experience at AT&T WorldNet (Win 95-98, Win 3.1, Mac), and not just because I kept on seeing the home page of whatever service I'd logged into before connecting to AT&T (a bit of browser confusion I wasn't able to resolve). AT&T's start page isn't customizable, doesn't tell you when e-mail shows up and is generally on the thin side. But the draw for this service doesn't seem to be a matter of this kind of Web window dressing; the stronger selling point would be the six e-mail accounts -- only one short of what AOL offers with each account -- and the whopping 60 megabytes of Web storage space that come included with a $21.95 monthly subscription.
Last of all, the venerable online service Prodigy (Win 95-98, Win 3.1, Mac) seems to have decided to distinguish itself with online shopping. Buy products through the Prodigy service and you can earn points redeemable for merchandise at participating retailers such as Tower Records. Other than that, the interface is user-friendly and customizable -- news, stock prices, horoscopes and a personalized calendar -- but not the kind of thing you can't get at any of the major portal sites. The bigger advantage is the six mailboxes included with each account -- for a monthly rate $2 less than AOL's.
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