Walt Mossberg

Microsoft Service Lets You Create A Nice Blog, But Limits Tweaking

If you think that only techies can launch a blog, or Web log, to share their views with friends, family or the whole Internet — think again. Numerous online services make it dead simple for anyone to create a blog, at no cost, with no technical knowledge whatsoever.

These services allow anyone with a computer and Internet connection to get started in minutes, and they host the blog on their servers free of charge. Among the leaders in the field are small outfits like LiveJournal (livejournal.com), now owned by a blogging-tools company called Six Apart, and Xanga (xanga.com).

Such online offerings for making blogging simple are also becoming the latest battleground in the war among three Internet giants — Google, Yahoo and Microsoft — that are better known for slugging it out in the search arena.

Google got a big jump when it bought a service called Blogger (blogger.com). Today, the company hosts an estimated eight million blogs. Yahoo is developing an elaborate service called Yahoo 360 (360.yahoo.com), which offers blogging and other features designed to connect people. It’s currently in a test phase, open only by invitation.

Microsoft has just launched its own blogging service, called MSN Spaces (spaces.msn.com). Because it’s the newest of the giants’ offerings to complete its test phase, I decided to try it out. Microsoft says it already has more than seven million blogs in Spaces, and is adding new ones at a rate of over 100,000 a day.

My verdict: MSN Spaces is very well done. It makes it easy to create a simple, attractive blog with text, links and photos, and to customize the blog in interesting ways.

The blogs Microsoft allows you to create in Spaces can be very attractive, but, in my judgment, the system doesn’t allow as much customization or tweaking as Blogger does. Still, Spaces offers all the basics.

I created a simple test blog in Spaces, with some comments and photos about the new baseball season, in less than 15 minutes. Over a period of a few days, I returned to Spaces to add entries and customize it. You can see the result, called “Walt’s Baseball Musings,” at spaces.msn.com/members/wmossberg.

Everyone who creates an MSN blog gets a Web address like mine that can be accessed from any computer. You can also syndicate your blog using a technology called RSS, which allows your postings to be picked up by software programs called news readers. These programs track new postings on syndicated blogs and offer quick summaries.

MSN Spaces offers all the standard blogging features. Visitors can enter comments on blog entries, and each entry can have its own link so that other blogs can easily reference it. You can also allow “Trackbacks,” a common blog feature that shows which other blogs have written about yours.

The blogs you create in MSN Spaces can be open to as many or as few people as you choose. You can set your blog to be viewable by anyone, or only by contacts in your MSN Messenger instant messaging program, or only by a list of people you select from your MSN address book. People wishing to add comments must have a free Microsoft Passport sign-in ID. You can also turn off the commenting feature.

Each blog entry can include text, Web links and photos. Spaces has a very nice photo-album feature that lets users view slide shows. It allows you to store 30 megabytes of pictures on your blog, or about 750 images after compression.

You can also post lists of favorite songs to your MSN blog. Users who click on the songs are taken to Microsoft’s online music store, where they can hear clips or buy the tunes, if they are available (some of the obscure Red Sox-related songs in my music list aren’t). You can also post lists of related Web sites, books and other things.

MSN blogs can be customized, up to a point. You can select from five layouts and 50 “themes” — combinations of colors and backgrounds.

You don’t have to use Microsoft software to create a blog in Spaces. I created entries in my test blog using a Macintosh computer, a Windows computer, the open-source Firefox Web browser, Apple Computer’s Safari Web browser and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser.

However, in typical Microsoft fashion, Spaces works best when you use Internet Explorer in Windows. For instance, unless you use Internet Explorer in Windows, you can’t make your text bold or italic or colored. You can’t turn words you enter into Web links. And you can’t create separate paragraphs in your entries.

Also, users of Internet Explorer in Windows get a much nicer interface for uploading photos. And viewers of your blog get a richer experience as well by using Internet Explorer in Windows: They see an automated photo slide show in a small window. On the Mac or with other Windows browsers, the slide show must be manually launched.

I found a couple of other downsides to Spaces. The title of your blog appears in a rigid, universal format. Photos embedded in blog entries are always small and must be below the text. And the Spaces search feature failed to find my blog, even after a few days.

Still, MSN Spaces is a good, basic blogging service that I can recommend to any novice blogger.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com.

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