NEW YORK (AP) _ Welcome to the blogging craze, Microsoft and Yahoo.
They have plenty of company: Google Inc., America Online Inc. and Six Apart Ltd., among others, already offer free and for-pay tools for users to create their own Web journals, known as blogs.
How do they hold up? Quite well, according to my tests.
But there's still plenty to fault.
Blogs are Web sites where individuals can muse about politics, hobbies or everyday life. A November survey from the Pew Internet and American Life Project finds that about 27 percent of adult Internet users in the United States read them, up from 17 percent in February. About 7 percent of users have created blogs.
You could be one, too, with one of these blogging services.
I'll begin with Yahoo Inc.'s free 360 service, which blends blogging and social networking, a way for groups to form based on friends of friends of friends connecting. Released last month and still in a limited test, or ``beta,'' phase, it's the baby of the bunch.
It handles the basics quite well. You can add entries easily through a Web interface, as well as highlight text in bold or italics or change the text color. You also can indent passages. The tools are as easy to use as a word processor, though more limited _ you can't underline or change text size, for instance.
You can insert one JPEG photo, though you can't specify where it appears _ it always goes above the text.
Yahoo blogs can be customized so visitors see reviews you've written elsewhere at Yahoo about local restaurants and businesses. The blogs also integrate with Yahoo's photo-sharing and Internet radio services.
Yet I desire more, namely the ability to let friends create new posts, the way you can with Google's Blogger and Six Apart's TypePad. With Yahoo, they can only comment on existing posts. I also wish I could use other photo formats and display more than one picture per post.
For now, you can sign up for 360 only if you get an invitation from someone else already on the service. But that will change once 360 graduates from its early test phase _ Yahoo says it'll be adding features, too.
If Yahoo's blog is the baby, then Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Spaces is in kindergarten. The free service left its test period recently, but is relatively young.
You can do more with MSN, including underlining text and adding multiple photos in multiple formats. Like Yahoo, though, you can't specify where photos appear _ in this case, photos go below text.
Yahoo and MSN both let you post from a mobile phone, but MSN lets you do it from any e-mail account by sending a message to an address only you know.
MSN gives you a few features that most veteran blog services don't even offer. That includes Trackback, which lets you see what other blogs or Web sites link to your posts, and stats on traffic your blog gets.
Access was slow one day I tested it, but I'll consider that an aberration.
What I don't like is the requirement you use Microsoft's own Internet Explorer browser to access some of these features, such as the word processor-like interface. Other blogging services work with at least Firefox as well.
MSN shows promise but only if becomes less Microsoft-centric.
Of the remaining services, only one is truly free: Blogger.
It's the teenager on the block and is packed with wonderful features, including the ability to authorize friends to post. Small question marks pop up all over the site, giving you quick access to Blogger's rich ``help'' section.
It shares MSN's ability to post from any e-mail account, and it offers even more ways to format posts _ you can change fonts and sizes and run entries through a spell checker.
But there's no Trackback or built-in stats counter.
The biggest shortcoming is the frequent exposure to HTML, which is used to design Web pages. Blogger has improved now that it has a word processor-like interface, but it still requires you to play with HTML code to do things like editing the list of your favorite blogs, which runs to the side.
And to limit access to your blog, you need to find your own Web servers to host it; with others, you can make blogs public, private or in between through the regular service. And unlike Yahoo and MSN, Blogger won't host your photos.
LiveJournal, which Six Apart recently bought, is comparable to Blogger in features, but many of the advanced services, like posting from mobile phones, require subscriptions ($2 monthly if you pay the full year). I do like its ability to designate certain entries as ``memorable.'' Visitors can quickly read your best posts that way.
AOL Journals is free only for the service's members; new subscriptions start at $14.95. It doesn't offer much that others don't have, except for the ability to post from AOL's instant-messaging software.
Unfortunately, none of the five free or semi-free services satisfies me fully, and which one you choose depends on the specific features you value most.
To get them all, you must pay at least $4.95 a month to subscribe to TypePad. It pretty much has everything I could ask for, including the ability to insert photos anywhere within a post. The access controls aren't as versatile, but I can live with that as long as one is available.