AOL vs. MSN: A Question of Style
Both have just updated their sites. Picking one depends on what you want from the Web

In the flighty world of the Internet, America Online ( AOL) has been a rock. While others have flitted from fad to fad, AOL has followed a course of gentle evolution that has allowed it to dominate the industry in size and, more important these days, profitability. AOL 6.0, the latest version of its basic software, makes some important improvements. But the Internet giant made them in a way that won't upset its 23 million users, many of whom chose the service because it is safe, simple, and predictable.

On the same day that AOL released the new version, Microsoft ( MSFT) served notice that it is still very much a player in this game. After five years of fits and starts, online also-ran Microsoft Network released MSN Explorer, the first really worthy competitor to AOL. And as is often the case with effective competition, consumers will be the real winners in this struggle.

The bottom line is that both AOL 6.0 and MSN Explorer are excellent packages that make it easy to get on the Internet. The choice is more a matter of preference than the inherent superiority of one over the other.

FRAMED. The home screens of the two services are a good example. MSN opens a modified version of the Internet Explorer browser full-screen. A row of buttons across the top offers choices such as mail, favorites, and chat. A panel on the left side of the screen offers personalized features such as My Calendar and My Stocks. And the rest of the screen is given over to the familiar, if rather busy, home page. As you go to features of the service or to Web pages, these menus remain as a frame around the content, which appears in a single window.

AOL favors multiple windows. On startup, you see at least four after the obligatory ad or two: the day's welcome window, a list of content channels, an instant message buddy list, and a promo for AOL Plus streaming-video content, which barely works over a broadband connection, let alone a dial-up line. Together with a complicated set of menus across the top of the page and a separate browser window that opens when you go to a Web site, it makes for a messy screen. But AOL has always done it this way, and 23 million customers seem to like it.

AOL e-mail, long a laggard, has become a plus. MSN's decision to use a version of Microsoft's free, Web-based Hotmail puts it at a disadvantage. Web-based mail makes your address book and your messages (and also your calendar) available from any computer that can reach the Internet. But you can only read or write mail while connected to the Net.

AOL's latest improvement on its longstanding approach gives you the best of both Web- and PC-based mail. The new version offers to complete an address as you start to type, and your address book and calendar are now stored on a server to give access when you are away from your own machine. AOL also offers full access to your mail, address book, and calendar from any browser at

CRITICAL DIFFERENCE. Although both aim at relatively unsophisticated users, AOL and MSN also appeal to more dedicated techies by offering e-mail and instant messaging on wireless phones. In theory, you can use them on any Web-enabled phone, but AOL makes it tough to set it up with carriers other than its partners, AT&T Wireless ( AWE) and Sprint PCS ( PCS). Microsoft makes it easier to use the carrier of your choice, but it works best with phones--like Nextel's ( NXTL)--that put MSN Mobile on their menu.

That is the critical difference between the AOL and Microsoft approaches. AOL provides a more controlled environment. Many AOL subscribers get everything they want from the Web--shopping, travel information, news, sports, chat, message boards, mail--without leaving the cozy confines of AOL's own content. Parents worried about what their children might do on the Internet get built-in controls. MSN is much more of an open portal that allows--even requires--users to explore on their own.

One advantage of MSN is that if you already have Internet access, the software, downloadable from, and the Web site are free. Internet access from Microsoft costs $21.95 a month. AOL requires a subscription at between $4.95 and $21.95 a month to use its service. Both have matured into good services that appeal to new and experienced users alike. The choice is mostly a question of style.

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