The world's leading Internet service company, AOL Time Warner Inc., is unleashing a new version of its America Online front-end to its 31 million members this week, beckoning with broadband-friendly features and many small improvements. AOL 7.0 arrives a day after Microsoft Corp.'s MSN 7.0, which was announced on Monday and is being rolled out incrementally until the October 25 release of the updated operating system, Windows XP.
Even AOL acknowledges that 7.0 isn't a major overhaul. The jump from AOL 6.0 to 7.0 is small yet meaningful, with upgrades to existing features like chat and instant messaging. Broadband customers will enjoy additional content features as well.
"We've focused on knitting existing features together," says Jeff Kimball, executive director of AOL Products. The company's focus is on simplicity, reliability, and making AOL more relevant to its members, he says.
But AOL clearly has its eye on the competition. Among the new functions in AOL 7.0 are the online music service Radio@AOL and AOL Box Office for buying tickets to local events. Both bring AOL closer in parity to portal offerings from MSN and Yahoo.
AOL 7.0 is mandatory for members who are considering an upgrade to Windows XP. Most versions of AOL 6.0 are not compatible with Windows XP, and AOL triggers users who try to run an earlier version of AOL on Windows XP to upgrade to 7.0.
The upgrade is likely welcome to broadband customers who crave media-rich content and like to chat online.
AOL has expanded its high-speed content to include live and on-demand coverage from CBS News and the National Football League. Other new, high-speed material comes from Time Warner's large stable of media holdings, including CNN, the Cartoon Network, and E. Some Webcast material is produced specifically for AOL members.
AOL 7.0 slightly changes the way the service integrates broadband content. Gone is the Media Tower that used to inhabit the lower-right corner of the AOL interface. Now AOL simply enhances its menus with tightly integrated broadband content that appears only if the user has a high-speed connection.
Radio@AOL, with 75 music channels, replaces AOL Plus Radio, which had only six channels. But this is not one of the broadband-enhanced features, unfortunately: Music channels are streamed at low sound quality and optimized for 56-kilobits-per-second modems. AOL promises the audio channels will be enhanced for high-speed connections later this year.
The emoticon selection in 7.0 goes far beyond smiley faces. This release adds a slew of new emoticons that members can use in chat rooms as well as in instant messages. Also new are buddy icons for use with AOL Instant Messenger. The ample supply draws from Time Warner images, ranging from familiar Looney Tune graphics to images from the Harry Potter books.
Another AIM enhancement is the addition of special icons indicating that a buddy is logged on via a mobile device. This helps users tailor messages for small screens, and explains why replies from a buddy may be abbreviated.
Zeroing in by Zip code
AOL 7.0 gets down to street level: Instead of customizing content to a telephone area code when delivering weather reports and similar information, AOL now requests the member's Zip code to deliver even more localized material such as entertainment schedules and news. This detail is put to use in the expanded event listings and a new location-based AOL Weekend guide.
Another new section, AOL Box Office, is provided in partnership with Ticketmaster and is designed to make it easier for members to find local events and to buy tickets.
In addition to making core updates to communications and content, AOL has beefed up security by making it easier to report troublemakers. Complaints about junk mail and rude members now go to a central repository called Notify AOL, accessible by only one click.
The AOL Coach Engine is revamped to help AOL newbies. It offers a guided tour of how to compose and send e-mail messages, and AOL says additional tutorials will follow. Also available is basic help for common functions.
The You've Got Pictures area is a bit more generic in 7.0. Previously, users had to access developing services through Eastman Kodak to store and display digital photos. Now members can post an unlimited number of digital images from any source on the photo-sharing service.
In addition to borrowing content from its Time Warner siblings, AOL 7.0 lifts several ideas from its Netscape division. Its e-mail section in particular implements several functions found in the latest version of Netscape 6.1, which was released in August.
One similarity is found in the in-box. The AOL "running figure" icon appears beside the names of correspondents who are online when a member checks e-mail, allows them to respond immediately to messages via AOL Instant Messenger rather than e-mail.
Also borrowed from the Netscape browser is auto-completion of e-mail addresses. Users start typing the name or e-mail address, and within a few letters AOL completes the name with the closest match listed in the address book.
AOL 7.0 supports slightly larger messages than earlier versions. Previously, any message larger than 50KB was turned into an attachment to be downloaded. AOL 7.0 raises the limit a nudge to 63KB, which is hardly anything to e-mail home about.
Microsoft has made it clear it's aiming for AOL's consumer audience, and continues to revise and simplify its MSN portal accordingly. With that competition, AOL can't afford to rest on its laurels--and wisely, it's not.