AOL: Internet identity crisis on the way

Kicking off Internet World, AOL's Barry Schuler explains how televisions, telephones, music players and computers will all be the same under the bonnet - with AOL at the hub
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor

Gizmos in the year 2005 are going to have an identity problem, Barry Schuler believes.

Televisions, telephones, music machines, and computers will still look like their Old World counterparts. But under the hood, they will all be running on the same Internet software, said the man who heads America Online's interactive group.

Putting on his "nerd hat", Schuler told an audience of about 1,000 people at Internet World in New York City Wednesday that he's betting that the TCP/IP protocol, which moves information from one point to the next on the Internet, is about to become the "enabling technology of phones, televisions etc".

"In the next five to ten years, television, telephones, music machines, and computer are all going to be one and the same technology," he said. "All will be interoperable. All will be running on a broadband pipe."

Schuler was not just throwing around ideas to entertain a room. He's describing the future for which AOL is already preparing. Just hours before his address, the company unleashed its latest version, AOL 6.0. Like Schuler's future TV, which he predicts will get one million channels, it still looks a lot like its Old World model. But strip away the layers and users will see "the most complete rewrite of code in AOL's history," he said.

The new software lets AOL users connect anywhere, whether it's through a cable modem, satellite broadband, or even dial-up.

One of its newest features for the 25 million AOL users is an "AOL anywhere" feature. Dial up a 1-800 number, whisper in a personal identification number, and soon an electronically generated voice is reading email to you or giving you stock quotes. "AOL 6.0 is the hub of all this. It's the most sweeping update in our history," he said.

But before the million-channel TV that Schuler envisions -- challenging viewers to surf and find anything good to watch -- there is the immediate future that AOL must face. AOL and Time Warner -- the two companies are in the midst of merging -- launched their first viable product together, a book meant to show people how they can be "wired in a week".

Next year, some more substantial products should roll out. Schuler said AOL and Time Warner will likely be launching in 2001 a subscription-based service to sell music that Time Warner has at its control. He also predicted smooth sailing for the merger.

But first, the companies will have to answer questions about whether they will open up AOL's popular Instant Messaging programs for other platforms. It'll happen, perhaps as soon as next year, Schuler said. AOL engineers are already working on a solution, he said.

"[Instant messaging], unlike email, is much harder. It's in real time," he said. "With email, it's shipped to a server and it gets picked up. But IM has to be seen now."

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