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Hey - Like, Wow! It's CompuServe's User-Friendly Service

'Movies," the Internet-curious friend directed. So off we went, searching the global network for movie reviews. After 10 minutes, we hadn't found any, and my friend was growing restless.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When the Internet, and especially its graphical part, the World Wide Web, gained prominence a couple of years ago, it was supposed to be the be-all and end-all of the on-line world. Traditional on-line services, such as CompuServe and America Online, weren't supposed to be able to compete against the bigger and more feature-rich Web.

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But they are. An investment firm recently recommended buying America Online stock because, among other things, its members were spending more time viewing its proprietary content than using its link to the Internet. It's the same story at CompuServe. Members spend only about 20 percent of their time surfing the Internet.

If traditional on-line services can make it easy for users to find things, they have an advantage over the Internet. If they can integrate Internet material into their own offerings and make the whole thing easy to navigate, they have a huge advantage. Which brings us to Wow!

Launched two weeks ago by CompuServe, Wow! is aimed at making the Internet and the rest of the on-line world so easy to use that even the beginning computer user won't be intimidated.

Name a service "Wow!" and you create high expectations. People will either think it's great or the tail-end of a dog's bark. The service is too new to make a full assessment. But its promise is strong.

For example, it's extremely easy to install. If you can answer the question "Does your telephone have call-waiting?" you can install this program. Once on-line, the service has buttons that simplify on-line navigation. It's easy to jump from the on-line encyclopedia to the chat section and even to the movie reviews, which are up-to-date.

The service also integrates the Internet quite nicely. Click on the humor section, for example, and you can chat with other Wow! users about humor. But click on the shopping icon and the service displays two Internet stores that the Wow! staff has chosen as good places to buy gag gifts. Beginners might not even know they're on the Internet.

Wow! also has a children's interface. So after parents sign up, their children can log on to their own accounts. The children's version, with its cartoon characters and splashier graphics, also has built-in electronic fences to keep inquisitive young minds away from the small but seamy side of the Internet. For example, all children's mail is received by parents first. A teen version of the program is due this summer.

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The price is right, too. At $17.95 a month, which includes unlimited Internet access, Wow! is competitively priced. CompuServe reports that initial demand has been strong.

For all its strengths, the service has some glaring weaknesses. The most obvious is that it's available only for Windows 95 users. A Macintosh version won't be ready until the fall.

The program also demands that Windows 95 users engage a small-fonts option in their settings, which could easily confuse beginners. At high resolutions, that option could also make the print hard to read for some users.

The installation scheme has a major problem too. If you delete the program from your computer and then reinstall it, you have to set up a whole new account. The same goes for users who want to install the program on a second computer. They can't, unless they're willing to set up - and pay for - a second account.

One hopes that Wow! will iron out these problems and deliver on what remains a strong promise: an easy-to-use service where even beginners can surf on-line without fear of wiping out.

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