The offering is AOL's latest push to move away from the pure Internet Service Provider business into the portal space to lure former subscribers back to the fold.
AOL has recently launched free ad-based desktop software that combines its most popular services into one user interface, called OpenRide that creates a multi-pane view for Web users to be able to see e-mail, instant messaging, search and media such as video and audio on one screen.
In an effort to compete with Yahoo, Google and MSN, AOL’s offering is its first since deciding to make more of its services available for free in the chase for online advertising dollars.
With the launch of OpenRide -- the name reflecting AOL's shift away from its traditional closed-door approach of charging for services and features -- AOL is hoping to keep broadband multitaskers glued to its free offerings through an all-in-one program.
Unlike traditional Web browsers in which users perform one task at a time, OpenRide's interface includes a "quad view," which consists of four panes that allow users to keep different views open at once, including e-mail, instant messaging, search and media such as video and audio.
The panes automatically resize depending on what a user is doing at the moment, while giving users a glance of all the main tasks.
For example, when checking video or other media, a pane with a built-in media player takes up most of the space, but users still get smaller panes showing new mail, instant messaging chats and small, thumbnail versions of Web pages they have open. The media center provides access to video and music on the Web, as well as AOL's own services, and can play songs and show photos stored on a computer's hard drive.
OpenRide, which is optimized for broadband, but could also be used on dialup connections, provides access to email, instant messaging, Web browsing, online search and a digital entertainment media center in one application. The latter service lets users watch video, listen to music and view photos.
OpenRide, is designed for Internet users to be able to aggregate e-mail from outside POP3 e-mail systems, such as Microsoft Outlook and Google’s Gmail. Access to Yahoo Mail and Microsoft’s Hotmail is not included in the application. Users can pay extra, however, to access those accounts.
And unlike previous versions of AOL's all-in-one software, users would not have to sign in until they need to access a specific service like e-mail. "You can get right to the content," said Joel Davidson, AOL's executive vice president for access products and technology. "You do not have to go through any wall."
Moving Toward Portal Status
In August AOL announced that it was discarding its fee-based model for broadband and was adopting an ad revenue model similar to Yahoo's, which relies on banner ads for income.
The recent move is another push by AOL to move away from the pure Internet Service Provider business into the portal space. Towards that end the Web giant is aiming to give users a reason to jump from Yahoo or MSN.
“They are offering a more integrated, easier-to-use experience that puts all these different services in one place,” said Jim Penhune, an analyst at Strategy Analytics.
Davidson said AOL is counting on drawing former AOL subscribers who have gone to rival services from Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. because they did not want to pay monthly fees of as much as $26. He acknowledged OpenRide might not appeal to "high-end geeky Web users" accustomed to mixing and matching software.
David Card, a Jupiter Research senior analyst, said AOL may have a tough time explaining to most people why they would need an integrated experience.
"It demos well, but I'm not sure what the demand for that kind of thing would be," he said. "It will be interesting to see how they will market it."
AOL may have a long way to go to catch the top three portals, though. According to traffic rankings from Alexa, Yahoo is the number one site on the Internet, followed by MSN and Google, which have been moving back and forth in the number two and three spots over the last several months. AOL ranks number 36. In the past, "AOL's been more about serving its own base of subscribers than being a portal," Penhune said.
"I think the big challenge for them and a lot of others in this space is to come up with something that differentiates their user experience from all other [competitors' offerings] out there," Penhune said. He called the announcement "a step in that direction."
Over the past two years, AOL has been making its news articles, music videos and other services available for free in an effort to drive traffic to ad-supported Web sites to offset declines in subscription revenues. The Time Warner Inc. unit accelerated that shift in August when it also gave away AOL.com e-mail accounts and software once reserved for paying customers.
AOL said its own field-testing of the product with hundreds of households showed a need for an application that enables more efficient multitasking by eliminating the need to jump between multiple windows.
Other AOL services released so far include security tools, online storage, Internet telephony services and personalized email domains. AOL plans to launch this fall a version of online search for high-speed users. The service will be powered by Google, which owns 5 percent of AOL and also has an ad-partnership with the company.
OpenRide requires Microsoft's Windows XP operating system with Service Pack 2 installed, although AOL is planning a version for the upcoming Windows Vista. It will also offer a Vista version of OpenRide's predecessor, AOL 9.0.
The new software shares little of its predecessor's code. It takes advantage of Internet Explorer and Windows Media Player technology built into Windows, and an optional desktop search component helps users find files based on their contents rather than filename alone. The software also helps users keep track of their anti-virus and other security settings.
Roy Ben-Yoseph, director of AOL access product management, said OpenRide addresses complaints raised by researchers over bundling media players and other components without adequate disclosure. He said notice is improved, and most of those components already come with Windows, so OpenRide does not need to install them separately.
The software can be downloaded at http://www.aol.com/openride for free.