ONLINE SERVICES' INTERNET GAMBLE

THE JURY'S STILL OUT ON LONG-TERM BENEFITS OF OPENING TO THE WEB

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Commercial online services are looking increasingly to the Internet to attract the next generation of cyberconsumers.

But whether that speaks ill of their original enterprise -- e-mail, community and original content in a familiar enclosed space -- or reflects a smooth marketing move to a broader world is still anybody's guess.

While the improvement of interface technology means users may enter their commercial online service and access content beyond its walls without knowing they've left their point of origin, it may also mean that what the user ultimately wants-and ultimately chooses-is the Internet itself.

Analysts say the online services' access models are a positive move for their long-term business plans, following the natural evolution of consumers' learning curve and comfort level with the Internet.

"You'll come to think of AOL or Microsoft Network as a way of getting Web information," said Josh Bernoff, senior analyst with Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass. "And content will move away from the proprietary services and onto the Web, where it's accessible to all."

Over the past year, commercial services have gone from viewing the Internet as a threat to embracing it.

"The Web has been positive for AOL because we can create context and community," said Ted Leonsis, president of AOL Services Co. "We've got the customers. The Web doesn't."

But embracing it doesn't mean becoming one with it. Each of the Big 3 commercial services has a different approach to the Web.

AOL and Prodigy incorporate Web links into their services, in both content and advertising venues.

But while AOL has launched Global Network Navigator as a separate, Internet-only service-complete with its own content and pricing scheme-CompuServe is focusing on providing access to the Internet via its Internet in a Box software and a planned service code-named Spryte.

Prodigy falls somewhere in between in its relationship with the Web: In September it introduced "Interest Groups A-Z," Web sites available exclusively to Prodigy members. The sites offer chat areas and bulletin boards and are maintained by a moderator.

The service also is testing a $4.95-per-month Internet-only product, Informed Investor, scheduled for launch in December.

"All the [online] companies are trying different models right now," said David Bezaire, director of Internet services at CompuServe. "Nobody's going to put their stakes more than a few inches into the ground. What we're doing is testing theories."

Lest consumers forget the online services in an increasingly Web-centric world, each is running an expensive fall branding campaign.

Prodigy's current ad campaign, from Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, features crooner Barry White driving a school bus, a metaphor for the varied personalities that travel Prodigy's highway.

CompuServe, meanwhile, emphasizes the service's depth of information in ads from Martin Williams, Minneapolis. And AOL shows the stranger side of its community in ads from TBWA Chiat/Day, New York, featuring celebrities.

What may be next for the commercial services is the reverse link: allowing users to access them via the Web. So instead of dialing a separate number to log into Prodigy, AOL, etc., users could dial one Internet connection and type in a password to enter their particular online service.

Some say that even if the Web were to subsume the commercial services entirely they have a healthy shot at the Internet access provider market. Unlike smaller or regional access providers, online services are multimillion-dollar companies with money to invest in Internet access.

How do those small access providers feel about the commercial services on their turf?

"It's as if you paid to go to Disneyland and you can't get out. You have to eat their hot dogs," said Sky Dayton, president-CEO of Los Angeles-based Earthlink. "They have built some bridges," but to Mr. Dayton, they're still from Disneyland.

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