Gartner: AOL least-trusted company on the Net

As Internet titans Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc. (AOL) go head-on in their battle over market share, a report released Thursday by Gartner Inc. indicates that Microsoft has the advantage in at least one key respect -- consumer trust.

AOL was rated the least-trusted company on the Internet compared to banks, brokerages, large retailers, credit card companies, Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft, according to a recent Gartner survey of online adult consumers.

In fact, 37 percent of respondents gave AOL very poor marks in terms of trust, whereas 29 percent of those polled said they were distrustful of Microsoft, Gartner reported. At the other end, 17 percent of those surveyed said that they have a high level of trust in Microsoft, while 15 percent said the same of AOL.

The survey results come as the two Internet powerhouses are locked in a duel over consumers for their rival services, one of the most important of which is instant messaging. While AOL scored high on its instant messaging service, Gartner reported that loyalty among AOL's messaging users was limited.

The survey queried non-Microsoft instant messaging users on whether they were tempted to switch to Microsoft's MSN Messenger when it popped up on their screens as they were trying to connect to the Internet. Nearly a third of the respondents said that they were "not sure" if they would switch, and 4 percent said that they would jump onboard the Microsoft service.

Although almost two-thirds said that they will stick with their current service, Gartner analysts said that most users will take the path of least resistance and sign up for the service that's easiest to access.

When it comes to snaring more instant messaging customers, "Microsoft is not facing as an entrenched and loyal AOL customer base as one would imagine," Gartner vice president and research director Avivah Litan said in a statement.

In more disappointing news for AOL, Microsoft also rated higher on its ISP (Internet service provider) and e-mail services, Gartner said.

The researcher noted that the survey results point to online security and privacy as two of users' most pressing concerns, meaning that trust will be a large factor in consumers' adoption of new Internet services.

What's more, with higher scores in consumer trust, Microsoft has a good chance of convincing consumers to try features embedded in its upcoming Windows XP software, Gartner said.

While AOL has fancied itself a consumer advocate, "this survey clearly dispels that myth," Litan said in the statement.

The survey comes to AOL like salt on an open wound given that AOL parent company AOL Time Warner Inc. announced Tuesday that it is laying off 1,700 people as part of a restructuring plan. Like most media companies, AOL is currently being squeezed by a tight ad market, leading to a revenue shortfall.

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