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As more and more big names enter the uncharted financial waters of the online world, selling Ziff-Davis' Interchange network is becoming complicated.

In an effort to drum up bids for the fledgling network, Ziff cut the asking price from $300 million to $100 million. Steve Rattner, managing director of Lazard Freres & Co., which is handling the sale for the Ziff family, insists negotiations are proceeding. But the company didn't meet its goal of having a buyer for Interchange by Comdex/Fall, which ended more than a week ago.

Now the online market is getting even more fragmented. Microsoft Corp. unveiled Microsoft Network earlier this month. And MCI Communications Corp. last week said it would offer internetMCI, a comprehensive Internet access service.

Microsoft was said to be very interested in acquiring Interchange at one point. So were the three major online services America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe, as well as several Baby Bells. The unsettled horizon is apparently making the sale more tough.

"I think the fact that you haven't seen anything happening after a flurry of deals [for the other three pieces of Ziff Communications] indicates that they are having trouble selling it," said Richard Serrano, managing director of the media group at investment banker Gruntal & Co., New York.

Interchange as of yet is an unproven quantity. In beta test for a few weeks, the network plans a commercial launch early next year, with content from several dozen computer hardware, software and ancillary companies; The Washington Post; and, eventually, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Some at Comdex speculated that the sale has been stalled by bidders who wanted to see what the Microsoft Network looked like before taking their chances on Interchange.

The latest rumor: If nobody meets the asking price, the Ziff brothers may retain Interchange as one of the first long-term projects of Ziff Brothers Investments, a one-year-old venture capital firm they are funding with proceeds from the sale of the rest of Ziff Communications.

Dirk Ziff, oldest son of Chairman Emeritus William B. Ziff Jr., declined to comment on the speculation. Dirk and his brothers, Robert and Daniel, who collectively control 90% of the company, put Ziff on the block in June because they want to focus on non-publishing investments.

While the magazines and other units sold relatively quickly, potential buyers appear to be less intrigued by the fledgling online service. Interchange will require substantial capital investment on top of the millions already invested in research and development by the Ziff family.

"The network is very intangible," said one media investment banker. "What exactly are you buying?"

Complicating the picture is the arrival of the new online services. Microsoft executives say that while Interchange's content is interesting-the first product due out is called Interchange Computing and features sponsored areas on computer-related topics-their company isn't likely to acquire the network.

"To my knowledge, we certainly don't have any interest in purchasing that," a Microsoft spokeswoman said.

AT&T, also rumored as a potential buyer, is revving up its online business, agreeing to acquire the remaining 80% stake in ImagiNation Network for $40 million.

MCI, meanwhile, established internetMCI, a service scheduled to launch in January. InternetMCI will offer deeper access to the Internet than most mainstream online services, as well as an electronic shopping mall.

"We will be helping all kinds of companies, including retailers, in selling hard goods, software, hardware and a full line of products on the Internet," said John Donoghue, VP-marketing, MCI Business Markets, but he would not elaborate on the companies or products to be sold.

Mr. Rattner, meanwhile, insists that interest still abounds in the Ziff service.

"All I can say is that we are in talks with several buyers," he said, although he did concede that a deal is "not imminent. It is going to take a little more time."

He added: "This is the smallest and in many ways the most complicated part to sell. It's a new business, and it takes a lot more explaining."

Kate Fitzgerald and Bradley Johnson contributed to this story.

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