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AOL Hopes for Great Mileage Out of Its Souped-Up Web Site

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, July 14, 2005

America Online has been called the Internet on training wheels.

No more.

The new AOL aims to be the Internet on oversize racing wheels, a tricked-out surfing machine built for show and speed.

This shiny new entry into the race for Web supremacy is live at AOL.com, a Web site that lacked pizazz and purpose for nearly a decade despite repeated redesigns. Now AOL.com is in the throes of yet another makeover, reflecting a bet-the-company move away from subscription content toward free, ad-supported material.

A trial version of AOL's souped-up site went live three weeks ago and will replace the current AOL.com by early August. Features and content are being added almost daily. You can preview them by clicking the "AOL.com Beta" link on the home page.

The long-overdue bet is rich with irony for the Dulles-based firm whose growth stalled after its 2001 merger with Time Warner Inc. AOL, you may recall, became King of the Dial-Up Internet by simplifying the low-speed online experience for millions. Now it seeks to become King of Broadband by helping make the high-speed experience more intense and entertaining.

"Multimedia programming is one of our key differentiators," said James Bankoff, AOL's executive vice president for programming and products.

It is unclear, though, whether people really want an Internet that looks more like a motion picture than a spartan search box. The jury -- most likely younger Internet users -- is still out on that issue and therefore on AOL's future.

Many companies view broadband as a chance to remake today's utilitarian Internet into an entertainment medium. AOL rivals Yahoo, Google and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN also are moving into Internet video, as are traditional TV networks. Just this week, CBS News announced what it called a "cable bypass" strategy of using its CBSNews.com Web site to distribute programming 24 hours a day.

AOL executives contend that their new site has an edge over Yahoo and MSN because it was built from scratch in a different online era and geared for broadband. While AOL continues to serve dial-up customers inside its old proprietary service, Yahoo and MSN are trying to serve both from a single Web site.

That helps explain why AOL's new home page features more links to video and music. Moreover, it will soon offer two alternative home pages: a video hub helping people find "on-demand" videos to watch, and a customizable page analogous to "My Yahoo" that will let users pull in headlines from their favorite Web news sites and blogs.

I won't be using the standard AOL home page much. I think it looks cluttered and wastes space promoting software downloads and spotlighting random items from around the Web, supposedly handpicked by AOL editors. The top "LiveWeb" item yesterday was the Web site for SageWalk, an obscure summer camp for teens in Oregon. How random is that?

More interesting, I suspect, will be the video and news hubs. The video start page will present links to the 10 most-watched videos, along with clips considered weird and others chosen as the day's highlights in movies, TV, music and news. People also will be able to browse and watch a licensed collection of more than 1 million videos.

Thanks to its position inside a large media empire, AOL is moving more rapidly than rivals into creating and distributing original entertainment. The company said more than 5 million people watched at least some of the live Web video it produced of the Live 8 concerts on July 2. That included 175,000 simultaneous Internet viewers at the peak, a record for AOL.

You could lose yourself in the original video AOL is dishing up free. Some is on AOL's existing Web properties, such as Moviefone's "Unscripted," a show in which movie stars and directors ask each other questions submitted by AOL users. I had to tear myself away from watching a pseudo-interview in which Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg used online audience questions as conversational starting points. Coming soon is "The Biz," in which people will compete to run a real music label for Warner Music Group.

While entertainment appears to be AOL's focus, it isn't abandoning utilities such as e-mail and instant messaging. In May, AOL introduced a free service called AIM Mail integrated with its AIM instant-messaging software. The same sign-in name and password gives people access to both AIM Web mail and instant messaging. The free e-mail addresses end in @aim.com, rather than @aol.com, an address reserved for paying subscribers.

Soon AOL will release a revamped Instant Messenger with advanced features, including automatically synchronizing addresses and phone numbers between a user's IM buddy list, Microsoft Outlook address book and cell phone.

With all this free from AOL, why would anyone continue paying for its unlimited dial-up plan, when much cheaper access is available from rivals? Inertia, of course, will keep some of AOL's nearly 22 million subscribers loyal for a while, along with a desire to keep their existing e-mail addresses. And in addition to maintaining a small amount of content exclusively for subscribers, AOL has decided not to give away its parental controls and software for monitoring children's online activities.

But I can't imagine any of that is worth $23.90 a month, so it seems inevitable that AOL's dribble of subscriber defections is about to become a flood.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address iswalkerl@washpost.com.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company