AOL, Microsoft revive browser wars

AOL is launching its revamped client interface at the Internet World 2000 trade show, which opened in New York on Wednesday. Its 25 million subscribers will get new features such as "AOL by Phone," which allows telephone access to e-mail and calendars. Also new is a Media Player, so AOL's growing number of broadband customers will be able to access more multimedia content.

AOL is also revamping its AOL.com Web site and renaming it "AOL Anywhere." It is intended to be a destination for managing AOL services and content for a broad range of devices. Not so coincidentally, Microsoft on Wednesday released MSN Explorer. Like AOL 6, the revamped MSN Explorer is a downloadable client. It puts a simpler, more unified interface on Microsoft's large stable of MSN properties, which includes eShop, Hotmail, and Money Central. The specialised browser (not to be confused with Internet Explorer) has been available in preview form since May.

Browser War Is Revived

The battle lines will be drawn between the "experience" each browser delivers -- not the browsing software per se, industry watchers suggest.

Microsoft aims to deliver a simpler, friendlier, easy-to-navigate version of the Web. AOL, on the other hand, offers a "Chinese menu" of features that caters to subscribers who want to do more than hang out in AOL chat rooms, says Bruce Kasrel, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

"This is a complete flip-flop of strategies for Microsoft and AOL," Kasrel says. Microsoft has traditionally been feature-rich, and AOL is known to be novice-friendly.

Kasrel says AOL is trying to serve three types of constituents: new, intermediate, and advanced members. By doing so, it will probably have a hard time pleasing everyone all the time. MSN, on the other hand, is targeting new Netizens who may find AOL too complicated.

MSN Goes After AOL

Microsoft isn't shy about its intentions for MSN Explorer to woo disheartened AOL fans. "It's an alternative to AOL," says Mike Nichols, a product manager for MSN. "MSN Explorer brings all the MSN services together in a usable way for new users up to advanced users."

Since its latest preview release, Microsoft has made at least two minor tweaks to MSN Explorer. The client now lets you narrow searches by specifying "Web Search," "New Search," and "eShop Search" search. It has added an "in-line editing" feature to MSN's Web Communities that lets you edit an MSN Web Community page as an "author" and move text and graphics within a browser window.

AOL.com Plays New Role

AOL intends to continue offering the Internet Explorer browser as part of the AOL 6 client, despite owning Netscape and its browser, says Jonathan Sacks, senior vice president and general manager of the AOL service. But AOL.com is due for a change. Staples like Top News, Web Centres that organise Internet content, and Hot Job recruiting tools will migrate to Netscape.com, Sacks says. "We will concentrate our effort behind one single portal, and not invent the [portal] wheel twice," Sacks says.

AOL.com will serve as a hub for customising AOL services. You'll visit the site to forward your e-mail or tailor the stock ticker on your AOLTV, Sacks says.

Along with the AOL 6 launch, AOL is announcing a US rollout of a satellite-based high-speed Internet service in partnership with Hughes Networks Systems' DirecPC division.

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Tom Spring

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