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Microsoft Network is ready to rock.

The Justice Department last week announced it won't try to block the Aug. 24 arrival of Windows 95 and its online sidekick, MSN.

But the feds continue their investigation of whether packaging MSN software inside Windows 95 is an antitrust violation, so regulation is still a threat.

If Microsoft succeeds according to its plan, MSN won't be the runaway success rivals so fear. Microsoft will sell tens of millions of copies of Windows 95 over the next year, yet claims it would be happy with just 1 million MSN customers over the next 12 months.

MSN said it would hold subscriber levels at 500,000 "temporarily" to evaluate system performance and fix glitches.

"We don't want our customers experiencing what we've seen other online services experience when they go through a period of online growth," said George Meng, MSN lead product manager.

MSN pricing, announced last week, is closer to the prices for rival services than many analysts had expected-$4.95 per month for three hours, with each additional hour costing $2.50. An annual membership plan, designed to alleviate some of the churn online services experience, is more competitively priced.

MSN will let consumers try out the service free. But without a significant price advantage, MSN's success will hinge on its content, which can't initially match that of rivals.

Similarly, MSN's ad rate card-to be issued Aug. 15-offers a wealth of opportunities, but there will likely be few advertisers when the service launches.

Indeed, there is a new global online force to be reckoned with. But the name may be Rupert Murdoch, not Bill Gates. Mr. Murdoch is far more experienced at packaging content for the masses, making his newly merged Delphi/MCI service a serious player.

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