By Doug Bedell / The Dallas Morning News
Recent upgrades by America Online, the world's largest Internet service provider, have been largely cosmetic. But the release Wednesday of AOL 6.0 may signal the start of a complete makeover.
Beyond the cleaner start-up screen lie some plucky efforts that both beginners and professionals may find compelling.
But with Version 6.0, AOL hasn't opened access to Instant Messenger, one of its most popular features. Instead, AOL has decided to continue prohibiting Instant Messenger subscriber access from similar services such as ICQ and MSN Messenger.
Elsewhere in AOL 6.0, there are abundant tweaks. A couple years ago, the service's 24 million subscribers were finally allowed to grab their AOL e-mail from the Web while away from home or the office. With the "AOL Anywhere" expansion in Version 6.0, both personal calendars and address book information also move to the Internet. Changes can be made to a user's calendar and address book from any computer.
"You make an entry online or off line â€“ using any copy of 6.0 or on your cell phone â€“ and it will automatically sync with the address books you keep elsewhere, " says Jeff Kimball of the AOL software group.
The calendar action is seamless. Updates are made as the user logs out, then stored in Web servers rather than a user's hard drive as in the past. The updated version can then be viewed remotely when an account holder is signed on as "Guest."
This is a vast improvement over previous versions, which required saving and replacing copies of address books whenever moving between computers.
For even more mobility, a telephone interface is being rolled out to allow subscribers to have their e-mail read back to them on any phone. Using a toll-free number and dial-pad entries, this AOL Anywhere feature also provides personalized stock quotes, weather, Moviefone information and driving directions.
This portion of the 6.0 package was not working in beta versions. The company will offer it free until Jan. 25. After that, it will cost $4.95 per month to continue the service.
Currently, Instant Messenger and AOL mail can be pulled down in text form on Web-enabled cell phones. But AOL appears to be working fast and furiously to bring a full range of remote options to multiple Internet access devices, including personal digital assistants such as the Palm handheld device.
"There's no timeline, but pretty soon it's all going to be available," says Mr. Kimball.
Here are other key ingredients of the AOL 6.0 package, as seen in beta versions being tested by 400,000 subscribers:
E-mail sorting: AOL finally acknowledges that its e-mail options no longer meet the needs of many business and consumer users who are inundated with electronic mail. The latest version allows automatic sorting and filtering of mail, much the same way as Eudora and Outlook operate.
Instant message options: There's nothing more annoying than receiving an urgent Instant Message that turns out to be trivial chatter. With AOL 6.0, Instant Messenger allows members to set up a customized greeting that politely tells chatters they're busy. A status window keeps track of who tried to contact a user and when.
Elsewhere, the Buddy List Setup has been revamped to allow dragging and dropping names between folders, saving time and effort to add and delete entries. And the entire interface sports a cleaner look.
The most disappointing part of the 6.0 package may be the lack of any move to allow the world's largest audience of Instant Messenger users to interact with friends and family who use ICQ and other message programs. As AOL continues to stonewall, technicians are busy trying to find common ground on standards and other issues.
This promising technology will stagnate until something is done to open up access, many experts believe. AOL, they note, is reluctant to give up a captive audience for its software and advertising. Says Mr. Kimball: "We believe in interoperability. We're working with the right people to get that done, but we need to do it in a way that the privacy and security of our members is protected."
Revamped portal: The flagship site is being relaunched as the hub for AOL Anywhere, the company's strategy to "Webify" its services.
Easier broadband setup: Modem dial-up remains the dominant method of Internet access by AOL users, but the company wants a piece of the promising fast-access services being installed. Digital subscriber lines, satellite and cable setups are expanded in this latest version.
Another media player: Nothing says AOL like its new Media Player. It's so stripped down and basic that a monkey could work it.
The player will play video, and audio files automatically open when users click on multimedia e-mail attachments, when streaming video or audio is accessed from the Web or whenever users double-click on multimedia files on their hard drives.
Flash: For the first time, Flash 4 technology is built into the AOL package, avoiding the need for disrupting downloads when "rich media" Web cartoons and graphics are encountered.
Shopping assistant: A new shopping assistant and built-in AOL wallet, similar to what Yahoo and MSN offer, make their debuts. One-click shopping with 300 AOL merchant-partners offers up-to-the-minute comparison-shopping.
Expanded "My Places": This menu item, introduced in Version 5.0, gets an upgrade by doubling the number of personalized features appearing on the Welcome Screen with shortcuts.