Microsoft creates cyberstreet to promote Internet

LONDON, – Microsoft, the U.S. software giant, installed free computers and Internet access to two dozen households in London on Thursday as part of a global marketing push for its Internet software.

Microsoft, which last August launched its Internet service provider the Microsoft Network, known as MSN, connected 23 homes along one street in London’s Islington neighbourhood to create what it called “MSN Street.”

Microsoft claims it is the first time anyone has linked an entire street to the Internet. The brainchild of Microsoft Network’s UK marketing staff, MSN Street is billed as the transformation of “…one conventional north London street into a virtual community of the future.”

“We think it’s the first attempt to dump the Internet into the laps of a real live comunity,” Andrew Baiden, a Microsoft spokesman said at a briefing for MSN Street participants.

Bill Gates, chief executive of Microsoft, said in his book “The Road Ahead” he was sceptical about the importance of the Internet until a couple of years ago, but now felt Microsoft’s future lay in its ability to harness the World Wide Web.

The 23 participating households in London — out of 70 total on the street — are linked to the Internet via personal computers supplied at no cost by Microsoft and free subscriptions to the Microsoft Network.

Microsoft spokesmen asked journalists not to identify the name of the street in London, in order to protect residents’ privacy.

The software company created an “electronic bulletin board” and a “chat room” for the 23 households — part of efforts to demonstrate the Internet links people from far-flung corners of the globe and can also strengthen local community ties.

The market research project will last six months. Participants will keep logs of their Internet usage.

“Journalists would ask us, What are people using the Internet for?” Taylor Collyer, marketing director for the Microsoft Network in the UK. “We thought that’s probably a good thing to know.”

Microsoft also wanted to find out if the Internet could be used to bring a community together.

Of the 23 adults who volunteered to participate in MSN Street, most were familiar with computers but few had Internet experience. Those who did were not necessarily impressed with what they saw.

“That was the problem that impacted on me,” said a barrister named Simon. “I actually got quite bored watching.”

But other MSN Street participants said they had keenly wanted Internet access.

Charlotte, a publisher who works from home, said she had been using the Internet at friends’ houses and was planning on getting her own connection.

“It will be great to use email (electronic mail),” said a journalist named Tom. “As far as the Internet is concerned people tell me there’s a hell of a lot on it, but I don’t know what I’ll use.”

Few of the 23 households knew one another before taking part in the MSN Street experiment. The question remains, can MSN Street create a community?

“My initial reaction was quite cynical,” said Charlotte. “I don’t need a computer to borrow a cup of sugar from my neighbors.” But she said she has warmed to the project’s community features.

Tom, the journalist, said he thought the project might create a community, but he wondered if that could happen had Microsoft not first introduced Street participants to each other. “The chat box, I can’t think that would be very useful. I can’t imagine there’d be four or five people at home at 9 o’clock wanting to talk.”

Microsoft launched its Internet service last August, having finally decided that the Internet was important to its core business.

The Microsoft Network has two million subscribers worldwide, including 110,000 in Britain, and is the world’s third-largest Internet service provider.