AOL 5.0 is here, hopes to be 'anywhere'

AOL rolled out its new software, with some features and more promises. Steve Case says he's open to ending IM wars.

AOL and MSN may be bitter rivals, but they have similar theme songs. That much was apparent in New York Tuesday, as America Online unveiled Version 5.0 of its software and announced its "AOL Anywhere" strategy.

AOL's announcement, on the eve of Internet World Fall '99, offered more promises of good things to come than actual new features, though there are some of those, too. But the announcement came a week after Microsoft's MSN launched its "Everyday Web" initiative, and AOL's announcement will be seen either as an echo or a shout that will drown out MSN.

AOL thinks the latter, of course. Bob Pittman, AOL's president and chief operating officer, said the new features will help AOL expand beyond its current 18 million users. "Our research shows that consumers now think online access is a necessity, just like telephones and televisions," Pittman said. "Consumers are looking for convenience, and they'll pay you a premium if it saves them time."

One analyst noted that AOL has fallen behind MSN technologically, but it may not matter. "Microsoft has definitely succeeded in outpacing AOL," said Seamus McAteer, an analyst at Jupiter Communications. "It's shown itself to be more of a master at software development. AOL is more of a master at marketing."

On the features front, McAteer said he was surprised to see online radio missing from AOL 5.0, and that he had also expected to see it include image editing software. Among the new version's marquee features: A new AOL search engine, a personalised calendar service, a picture sharing service called "You've Got Pictures," a new Shop@AOL e-commerce destination, and "AOL Plus," which automatically detects broadband capability.

AOL didn't touch on the instant messaging battle that has broken out between it and MSN, but after the press conference Steve Case, AOL's chairman and CEO, told ZDNN that it would be "happy" to work with Microsoft on opening up the popular AOL application. "As long as they do it in a way that's secure," he told ZDNN.

Naturally, there's an e-commerce component. Shop@AOL aims to take advantage of what Pittman called the "explosion" of e-commerce on the Web. AOL said members spend $850 million online every five weeks.

The shopping destination features a digital wallet and address book designed to streamline the online buying process. In tandem with its sister "Shop@" destinations on Netscape, CompuServe, and Digital City, AOL claims to reach 70 percent of the total Internet audience.

Other features include the new AOL Search which allows members simultaneous searching of AOL and the Web. The search engine is powered by Netscape's open directory, which just surpassed one million site listings. AOL 5.0's "My Calendar" feature tracks appointments and other key dates and can be accessed from multiple computers. E-mail alerts for movie premieres, sports events, and other upcoming events will be added to the calendar program later.

AOL's new "You've Got Pictures" was developed in partnership with Eastman Kodak, and is currently available at 38,000 Kodak photo finishing retail outlets. AOL members can post their photos online and order reprints of individual prints with one click ordering.

AOL Plus is the company's latest foray into embracing broadband access. Version 5.0 automatically detects a user's connection speed and, if they're connecting at high speeds, a special "AOL Plus" box pops up offering expanded high bandwidth content.

Although Barry Schuler, president of AOL's Interactive Services division, supports the broadband push, he added that AOL will continue to focus on the average Internet user and that "narrowband is going to be around for a long time." As part of its plan to provide AOL communication tools "anytime, anywhere," AOL 5.0 expands e-mail delivery to 3COM's Palm Pilot handheld device. E-mail capability for Windows CE devices is currently in beta testing and is expected to be available by the end of the year. E-mail message alerts that can be configured for delivery to pagers, cellular phones, and other wireless devices is expected later this year. Also on the "coming soon" front, text-to-voice e-mail technology, where members will be able to access their AOL messages over the phone.

Barry Schuler, president of AOL's Interactive Services division, offered a sneak peak of AOL's upcoming 'AOL TV" service during his portion of the hour-long presentation here. AOL TV is scheduled for release next year. AOL TV will offer many of the same features as traditional America Online service, like instant messaging and "You've Got Pictures," as well as its own proprietary content.

"AOL TV is a host service designed to make your TV better," said Schuler.

Schuler said AOL TV will have a different pricing structure than its online counterpart but would not speculate how much the service would cost. Schuler did say, however, that integrating the personal calendar function will be a key part of the first phase of AOL TV. Adding a "You've Got Video" feature that delivers and sorts home videos in a manner similar to the "You've Got Pictures" option is also a possibility, Schuler hinted.