|On September 19, America Online, Inc., will release version 8.0 of its popular online service software for both Macintosh and Windows PCs. At a press conference today, AOL CEO Steve Case demonstrated some of the service's compelling new features and
laid down a roadmap of the company's newly refocused "customer first" strategy that the company hopes will carry the service through the next decade and beyond.
America Online, a division of Time-Warner, Inc., currently boasts more than 30 million subscribers worldwide, nearly half of which are thought to be paying customers. The biggest challenge AOL faces in the coming decade is ensuring that its service continues to offer customers a compelling alternative to lower-priced, higher-speed internet access and free internet software that comes bundled with nearly every PC sold today. The new features of 8.0 will directly address these issues by adding more overall value and cost to the service. The new version was created after two years of marketing research into what consumers want and expect in a next-generation online service.
"We listen to our customers," Case told reporters, "and their voices came through loud and clear. We are happy to announce that AOL version 8.0 finally gives customers what they have been demanding for several years; namely higher prices and much more advertising."
"AOL is a premium service," a spokeswoman for the company told divisiontwo.com in an email interview, "and as such it has a responsibility to give its customers something more than what they can get for free with a bargain-basement ISP and free software. AOL is committed to delivering high-quality advertising to its very elite user base."
One new technology at the core of AOL 8.0 is the new Customer Friend Enhancer, a background service that runs even when the AOL client software is closed and the computer is disconnected from the Internet. According to Case, this service uses "intelligent tracking" technology to deliver targeted offers and promotions based on how a consumer uses his or her PC.
"Imagine you're typing a document in Microsoft Word that mentions your refrigerator is broken or your dryer is on its last legs", Case explained, "the new Customer Friend Enhancer will immediately pop up several windows featuring links to deals on refrigerators and dryers at partner sites like mysimon.com and bestbuy.com. This will enhance the overall computing experience for millions of our users." In a demonstration of the technology, Case showed how sending an email to Grandma through Outlook Express that mentions gingerbread cookies will arrive at her inbox with special offers like coupons from Mrs. Fields and Baker's Square, as well as the original text of the email enclosed as an attachment.
The Customer Friend Enhancer will keep a local database of web sites visited, programs opened, emails, instant messages, mp3s downloaded, and CDs and DVDs played. When the AOL client connects to the Internet, the Enhancer will download specialized content and ActiveX controls based on the individual user's preferences. "The best thing about this service is that it runs completely transparently in the background, and the longer it runs the more it learns about you," Case explained.
The interface of the AOL client itself will also receive a major overhaul. In an effort to make connecting to the service less frustrating for many users, the software will now display advertising during the dial-up and connection process in the form of full-screen Macromedia Flash presentations. Consumers who have been frustrated by having to make multiple connection attempts will now find the experience less of a bore and more value-added. The main screen has also been redesigned to have twice as much ad space as version 7.1, as well as a separate pop-up active channel window that features pushed content from partners such as People Magazine and MTV.com. Some users of the beta version complained that the window could not be closed and was always on top of other windows, but the final version of 8.0 eliminates this problem by making the window smaller. AOL suggests people who have a dual-monitor setup simply drag the channel window to their secondary monitor if they find it intrusive. Case assured the AOL community that "we take the feedback from our beta testers very, very seriously."
Many customers may also be surprised to learn that the monthly service rates for AOL 8.0 will be increased from $22.95 to $24.95. Case said the rate hike is necessary due to the increased bandwidth consumption brought on by additional premium advertising, the pushed content from partner sites and the Enhancer service. "When you look at what you're getting, an extra two dollars a month is a bargain."
AOL has also made several important additions to the service itself. Most notably, AOL has added an additional channel to its Community section that will feature photographs and descriptions of missing children, as well as pictures or sketches of suspects. The channel will include a moderated chat area to bring volunteers and law enforcement together, and there will be an anonymous form for people to fill out if they would like to contribute tips and information. Case gave reporters a tour of the new channel area, which AOL has dubbed "Lost & Found". "This new area will prove indispensable to law enforcement, grieving parents, relatives and friends," he said as he clicked through some of the channel's features. "Law enforcement officials will be able to compare notes and share information with other departments all over the country, worried parents will be able to distribute pictures of their missing children to a nationwide audience, and the chat area will allow communities to coordinate volunteers and search efforts. It will also feature helpful links to products they might like to buy."
The default installation of AOL 8.0 includes the AOL client, AOL Instant Messenger, Customer Friend Enhancer, Gator, RealOne Player, ICQ, Macromedia Flash 8, AOL Scripting Host, Netscape 7.0, Netscape Mail, Netscape Calendar, Netscape News, Netscape Media Viewer, Netscape Voice, Netscape Web Bar, Netscape Collabra, Netscape Group, Netscape InTouch, Netscape Express, Netscape Aurora, Netscape Impact, Netscape Fusion, Netscape Wow!, Netscape with Retsyn, and Linux-Netscape. A custom installation allows users to opt out of installing RealOne Player and ICQ, but they will automatically be signed up for one year of Net2Phone instead.
The new version of the AOL 8.0 client also fully complies with the newly passed Freedom Initiative Act, which classifies such activities as network hacking, packet sniffing, media piracy, viewing pornography, and using racial or sexual epithets in chat rooms as terrorism. A demonstration showed how typing a questionable instant message such a "marijuana boobies, anthrax penis Al Queda" automatically logs both the sender's and the recipient's screen names, IP addresses and music libraries. It then emails that info along with the original message to the federal government and the RIAA for further analysis. "America Online is proud to aid the U.S. government and the recording industry in protecting this country's precious freedoms," Case announced.
All in all, divisiontwo is very impressed with the innovative new features, ease of use and fore-thinking direction of AOL 8.0. We give it six out of a possible six stars, and our own personal recommendation.*
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