You've got AOL 5.0
October 6, 1999
by Tom Spring
(IDG) -- America Online debuted on Tuesday a 5.0 version of its software, stressing ease-of-use and offering a host of new features. This release also addresses questions about how AOL will adopt broadband and wireless technology into its software and network.
AOL adds a calendar, personalization, and a channel bar on its welcome screen, providing one-click access to popular AOL destinations. AOL also made a major overhaul of its search engine, so you can hunt through both Web content and AOL's proprietary offerings.
The upgrades keep AOL up to snuff with features offered by competing Web destinations like Yahoo and Lycos. Additionally, new robust search options reduce the chance of users traveling beyond AOL for Web content and services.
Analysts don't consider 5.0 a major upgrade.
"This doesn't change the competitive landscape, but it does add some long-needed features for members," says Barry Parr, Internet analyst with International Data Corporation.
Full steam ahead
AOL 5.0 offers some new features, such as "You've Got Pictures," developed with Eastman Kodak. With it, you can share photos online as easily as e-mail messages. AOL has also added services called "My Calendar" and a personalization option called "My Places." Members can now add as many as seven screen names up to 16 characters long (formerly 10). You can reverse deletion of e-mail, and you can read messages after signing off the network.
AOL Search, the improved search service, lets AOL members simultaneously search AOL's proprietary network and the Web. It replaces AOL's Excite-powered Netfind service with a search engine developed by Inktomi.
AOL Search leans heavily on Netscape subsidiary's Open Directory Project, which is built by "contributors" charged with neatly dividing the Web into directories. The Open Directory Project is also licensed to Lycos, HotBot, and AltaVista, and has compiled a list of nearly 1 million Web sites.
A scaled-down version of AOL Search is available through the AOL.com portal, where you can scour the Internet using AOL's new search engine (but not its network). AOL plans to implement AOL Search in its other Web services, including Netcenter and CompuServe.
Other features hint toward AOL's broadband and wireless strategy.
Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 is integrated into AOL 5.0. The upgrade requires a Pentium-class PC running Windows 95 or 98 with 16MB of memory and 38MB of available disk space. A Mac version of AOL 5.0 is not available.
AOL in the air
AOL 5.0 supports broadband cable and digital subscriber lines technologies, executives say. When members connect, AOL will recognize the bandwidth capacity and deliver "richer" content for those with fast access. The broadband feature called "Multimedia Tower" won't be available until later this year.
AOL has been criticized for its apparent failure to adopt a broadband strategy.
"AOL absolutely needs a broadband strategy moving forward, or it risks getting left high and dry by companies that do," Parr says.
AOL has struck deals with satellite Net access provider Hughes Electronics, DSL provider Bell Atlantic, and others to offer a speedy alternative. However, AOL is butting heads with Excite@Home and cable-access providers that require customers to buy their own service instead of using AOL.
As for wireless support and the "AOL Anywhere" initiative, AOL 5.0 will support e-mail on 3Com's PalmPilot later this year. AOL is also working with "smart" cell phone vendors to enable access to the AOL network though a calendar-like interface, executives say.
"This will be AOL's first multi-bandwidth and multi-device client," says Jonathan Sacks, senior vice president and general manager of AOL Interactive Services. "AOL is about convenience and applications. And those applications should be ubiquitous."
Sacks says the "magic" of the AOL update is a revamped back-end infrastructure that pushes services to members.
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