MICROSOFT chairman Bill Gates used the Comdex platform to announce full details of its much-anticipated interactive on-line service, The Microsoft Network, to be launched next year in conjunction with Windows 95 operating system. In Hong Kong, Microsoft said it would make The Microsoft Network available at the same time as the United States launch, with local dial-up numbers that will allow the territory's users to avoid expensive international telecommunications charges. Microsoft Hong Kong managing director Laurie Kan said the firm was already investigating local content providers to put Hong Kong-specific information services on The Microsoft Network. Mr Gates said the new service would be price-competitive with anything already on the market, but claimed The Microsoft Network would be easier to use than existing large commercial services such as CompuServe, America Online, or Prodigy, and promises more creative and 'compelling' information services from third-party content providers. The service was expected to go into beta-testing late this month. It is also expected to ship a special set of developers tools so that content providers can design their services in the near future. Microsoft said it planned to be more flexible than competitors in allowing third-party information providers, who will maintain control over the way their service looks on The Microsoft Network, and in the way that they charge for their services. Mr Gates said that although usage of on-line services was indeed growing rapidly, none of the existing services had yet managed to make their systems attractive enough to win over the vast potential consumer market - either because systems were too difficult to sign-on, too complex to navigate, or their services simply were not attractive enough for customers to pay for the service. The Microsoft Network will be accessed through communications tools within the company's Windows 95 operating system. New users will be able to sign on simply by clicking on an icon. Windows 95 will be launched 'in the first half' of next year, with analysts expecting it will be made available in April. Speaking at a special preview of The Microsoft Network at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas, Mr Gates said 'there is an opportunity to bring innovation into this market'. 'There is a tremendous explosion in the use of PCs, but less than 10 per cent of users with PCs use them on a regular basis. So it is obvious that these services aren't exciting enough, easy enough, or creative enough,' he said. Mr Gates said that too many on-line service features simply took existing print-medium materials and moved them across the electronic form. In background materials provided by Microsoft, the company claimed that interactive services were less popular now than media hype about the 'information superhighway' would suggest. The company claims that in the US although 40 per cent of Windows users own modems, fewer than 10 per cent of Windows users, and only four per cent of households, subscribe to an on-line services. But the company clearly believes the market has potential, and says it could be worth US$2 billion in five years. Microsoft intents to make its service easier to use by making it, in effect, an extension of the Windows 95 operating system. Once logged on, The Microsoft Network will have the same look and feel as Windows 95, with the same graphical interface. Actions such as downloading files will be performed as a simple 'drag and drop' copy operation. Mr Gates said the success of the new service would would be based on its simple and inexpensive 'basic' services. E-mail, bulletin boards, chat services, and Internet E-mail and news group access would be a part of its basic services, which is expected to be priced at about US$10 a month in Hong Kong. Microsoft Hong Kong's Mr Kan said it was not yet decided whether the company would charge an additional 'communications surcharge' to cover the cost of the Hong Kong-US link, as CompuServe does in the territory, or whether that cost would be spread through other charges. On top of the basic services, The Microsoft Network will revolve around 'dynamic content communities' in subject areas such as arts and entertainment; news and weather; business and finance; science and technology; computers and software; and community and public affairs. Mr Kan said it was hoped the Hong Kong-specific services might include areas such as personal finance, where local stocks might be listed, a racing guide service, and as on-line commercial transactions become more secure, some Hong Kong on-line retail services as well. The company is also investigating how The Microsoft Network might be used by the local trading community for functions such as electronic data interchange (EDI), Mr Kan said. The Microsoft Network will be accessible in more than 35 countries, and its client applications will be localised in 20 languages. The company also announced that it had signed with AT&T and Sprint of the US, British Telecommunications, and Unitel of Canada to provide the worldwide network infrastructure. Users will be able to connect via a local number at speeds of up to 14,400 bits per second. The data centre for the network will be located in Seattle in the US and will be based on scalable PC technology running the Windows NT Server operating system. The company also announced that Digital Equipment had been awarded a five year management and maintenance contract to run the network, which will initially consist of 200 servers.