AOL has entered the home computer security realm, offering users a look-see at Total Care, its umbrella suite of PC protection.
Internet portal AOL hopes to assuage the fears of its customers and other PC users facing a broad array of cyber threats and other technical problems with a combination security/computer troubleshooting service being launched recently in a beta version.
Dubbed as Total Care, the offering will provide to home users the same type of protection enjoyed by most I.T. professionals, AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein said. “There is a lot of fear, and confusion among computer users, and we can offer is a service that provides security and place to go keep a machine up and running properly.”
First reported in early June, Total Care is a security bundle meant to compete with similar by-subscription services already in the market -- such as Microsoft’s OneCare -- and those still in the planning stages, including Symantec’s Norton 360 and McAfee’s “Falcon” offerings.
The offering puts AOL in the same security software arena as Microsoft and Symantec for PC security.
PC Health Care
The all-encompassing Total Care security suite, available as a premium service to computer users, features both traditional security software tools comprises of anti-virus and anti-spyware applications, as well an Internet firewall -- all provided by security authority McAfee, and hard drive backup and remote PC backup features that use CDs, DVDs, or external drives for storing data. Some functions, such as computer backup, phishing and ID theft protection are not part of the beta version.
According to Weinstein, Total Care will include firewall, anti-virus, and anti-spyware defenses from McAfee; local backup and restore from Farstone Technology; and PC diagnostic and optimization utilities from Lolo Technologies, which is best known for its System Mechanic software. By the time Total Care finalizes -- "some time this year," Weinstein said -- it will also include online backup, and anti-phishing and anti-identity theft protection.
"There are a variety of companies responding to a clear consumer need," said Weinstein when asked if the package was AOL's response to Microsoft's $49.95 OneCare service. Consumers are worried about staying safe online and they are not sure how to optimize their PCs' performance. “At home, they feel completely lost about security,” he said.
AOL also is offering technical support to PC users online, by phone, or through house calls (for a fee), Weinstein said. Anti-phishing and ID theft protection will be rolled out before the services goes public.
"This is the most comprehensive PC protection package available to PC users, who are increasingly worried about security threats and who may need help solving their computing problems," said Weinstein. "What we are providing is a lot stronger than our customers currently receive."
Although aimed at all computer users, the free test version, available at beta.aol.com, is available only to AOL subscribers right now before it becomes a premium service that will be offered to both subscribers and non-members, according to Weinstein.
But in this offering, the ISP is reaching out to non-subscribers too, as AOL mulls a future in which it evolves to a free, ad-supported portal model such as Yahoo, with a bevy of content and tools along with free e-mail. “The goal is to become the IT professional for the home,” Weinstein told internetnews.com.
However, increasingly ISPs, such as AOL, are the preferred provider for security products, said Joe Wilcox of JupiterResearch. In June, Qwest said it would provide Microsoft’s OneCare free to Internet subscribers.
“For the last several years, ISPs have been increasingly critical players in the consumer Internet security market,” Gartner’s Lydia Leong said.
The company has yet not set a price for Total Care, which looks a lot like the PC protection suites provided by Microsoft, McAfee, Symantec and others. The final version will be available by the end of the year.
“The difference is,” said Weinstein, “that we are offering help in solving all of the computing problems.”
Partial coverage is no longer enough, Weinstein said. Increasingly, the lines between threats are blurred, agreed Wilcox.
AOL pointed to its "ladder of assistance" as making the difference between Total Care and similar products already available. Users needing help with a security problem can first turn a free online tutorial, then move onto PC-based and telephone support, according to Weinstein. If an answer cannot be found using the free options, Total Care offers in-home tech visits through an arrangement with Gurus2go. While this final step in the assistance ladder comes with a fee, the ISP declined to quote a price.
Keeping Customers Happy
AOL already offers free security tools to its members at the ISP's online “Safety and Security Center,” but Weinstein argued that Total Care will be attractive to both members and non-members.
Anything that helps inform and safeguard consumers is a step in the right direction, Yankee Group analyst Jonathan Singer said. “The education level, when it comes to viruses, spyware and spam, is still pretty low. Vendors and ISPs can help reduce the confusion and make it easier to deal with threats.”
The AOL spokesperson also points to Total Care's online backup feature, allowing users to protect data without a hard drive or CD burner, as a service unavailable elsewhere.
What prompted AOL's decision to offer Total Care to non-subscribers? It is one way to provide security to those who do not want the entire AOL package, according to Weinstein. Wilcox pointed to the number of non-AOL subscribers using the ISP’s instant messenger application, AIM.
Singer suggested that Total Care represents an effort by AOL to stem the tide of defections among its customers to broadband DSL and cable providers. "They are losing their dial-up subscribers, and focusing on security is one way to retain their customer base while perhaps enticing other people to sign up," he said.
It does not appear to be markedly different than other products out there, but AOL has the marketing clout to sell easy access to a number of helpful applications and services, Singer said. He noted that Comcast also offers McAfee security software.
Could the outreach be part of AOL’s reported plans to drop subscription fees in favor of online advertising? But AOL refused to comment on the report it may shift to a revenue model akin to Yahoo or Google.
“It is more about brand,” Wilcox said. An increasing number of AOL’s customers are outside their core services.
AOL’s entry into the security market could help add some luster to a brand that has taken some hits recently. Total Care helps associate AOL “with something important, that is safety,” Wilcox said.