Correction to This Article
An Oct. 15 Fast Forward column in Business incorrectly said that AOL's OpenRide Internet software does not offer a way to search through e-mail. That function exists but is normally hidden. Users may access it by pressing Ctrl+F or selecting "find mail" under the mail settings menu.

Something Old, Something New, Some Things Missing in AOL's OpenRide

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, October 15, 2006

For the first time in years, AOL isn't trying to catch up to competitors with a new software release.

Its new OpenRide -- a fusion of Web browser, e-mail reader, instant messenger and media player -- doesn't have any parallels among current Internet programs. It doesn't even look like a normal Windows application.

Instead of the conventional menu-toolbar-window stack, OpenRide fills the screen with four panes of content: Web, mail, "People" (a combination of address book and instant messaging) and "Media Center."

These quadrants can be resized by dragging a circular button at their intersection, or you can zoom one to nearly full screen by clicking a rectangular icon at its top-right corner. They also adjust automatically in response to your actions; click on a link in an e-mail message, and the Web pane grows to fill the bulk of the screen.

This all-in-one concept seems odd to anybody accustomed to flicking from e-mail to Web browser to music player, but one group of users could feel comfortable in it: AOL subscribers.

OpenRide could be the perfect way to bring people familiar with the monolithic AOL software out of that cocoon -- like the traditional software, OpenRide keeps you from having to switch among multiple programs, but it does so far more elegantly. It even offers the same parental controls as old-school AOL.

Unfortunately, this Windows XP-only program ( http://aol.com/openride ) isn't being put forth as that kind of upgrade. AOL isn't retiring its now-antiquated AOL 9; instead, it's promoting OpenRide as a new option for both its own customers and people who have never bothered with AOL's software until now.

OpenRide doesn't seem up to either mission. The new software doesn't do enough to ease longtime AOL users away from their old program (setting aside the fact that many of them don't run Windows XP in the first place), but it also lacks features most other users now expect.

Consider its Web browser. It's essentially AOL Explorer, an earlier stand-alone browser AOL built off the bones of Internet Explorer (meaning it suffers the same security issues as IE itself). This browser adds a better in-page search option and tabbed browsing -- the convenient option of opening multiple pages in a single window, then switching among them by clicking on tabs.

To keep you oriented, it provides thumbnail views of each open page: Mouse over each tab or entry in the history list and you get a miniature version of that page.

But OpenRide's browser also suffers from ill-chosen default settings -- when you open a link in a new tab, OpenRide takes you to the new page instead of leaving you on the current page. That goes against the more sensible practice of other tabbed browsers, which assume that you're saving the link for later reading.

OpenRide's browser is also blind to the "RSS" feeds many Web sites use to provide updates to readers and provides zero choice in search engines. The big search field at the top of OpenRide's window only connects to AOL's own search.


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