MICROSOFT NETWORK PUT TO THE TEST GATES' ONLINE SERVICE IS AVAILABLE AT NO COSTTO 400,000 BETA USERS

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Bill Gates' much-feared Microsoft Network won't be as daunting as many observers and rivals expect. And that's according to Microsoft.

"The expectations that have been set by the industry and reporting on this industry have been set so high that consumers can't help but be disappointed," said George Meng, Microsoft Network's lead product manager.

An online service has never been launched with so much debate and discussion from the outside world. The latest controversy revolves around Microsoft's plan to hire editors to package news stories for the service, a plan that has some journalists afraid the computer giant will try to become an objective news-gatherer.

While Microsoft Corp. faces a difficult task in managing expectations, it's also laboring hard to work out product glitches.

Late this month, Microsoft begins what must be the biggest pre-launch test ever of an online service. The 400,000 computer users worldwide receiving "final beta" versions of the Windows 95 operating system software will be given free access during the test phase to the Microsoft Network.

That will give the software giant a chance to spot some bugs before introducing Windows 95 and Microsoft Network, which can be accessed through the new PC software.

Initially, there won't be that much for testers to do online. They can access e-mail and Internet newsgroups, hardly novel features. And about 50 computer hardware and software companies plan to offer product information and online support, features that are also available on most other commercial services and through the Internet. World Wide Web access won't be available until late this year.

More interesting applications will begin to appear in coming months, giving content providers a chance to test their wares.

Microsoft is mum on just who will be on. But the company is known to have hosted a meeting of executives from more than 200 potential and official content providers earlier this month.

"We will have numerous content providers with recognizable brand names," Mr. Meng said.

For Microsoft, the most important task in the beta phase is to test the technical aspects of the service to make sure it can handle traffic.

"We're looking to get as many people connected" as possible, Mr. Meng said. Of the 50,000 people who tested an earlier beta version of Windows 95, about 10,000-20%-signed on to the network.

Making sure the service can handle traffic is a marketing issue: Microsoft needs a smooth-running online service to avoid the bashing that rivals like America Online received when their services couldn't handle traffic demands from users.

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