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.
The self-promotion continues if you type an address incorrectly: OpenRide treats your typo as an ad-sales opportunity and bombards you with a list of "sponsored links" that rarely exhibit any connection to the site you wanted.
And while OpenRide can import your Internet Explorer favorites automatically, doing the same with your AOL favorites requires drilling down to a well-hidden sub-menu.
OpenRide's mail component does one thing incredibly well. Not only does it come preconfigured for a free AOL account (required to use OpenRide's mail tools at all), it can also plug in the settings for many other providers' mail services automatically, freeing you from having to look up server addresses and port numbers.
Note, however, that bringing over messages saved on your computer in AOL's "Personal Filing Cabinet" format demands the same unintuitive menu traverse as the browser's favorites-importing option. And even if you pay for an AOL account, you'll see a large banner ad at the bottom of the message window.
Non-AOL subscribers have no reason to bother with this program, unless they want to relive using the 1993 edition of AOL's mail interface: It offers no search or filtering tools. At all. How is that even possible?
OpenRide's instant-messaging module offers the same features as AIM Triton, AOL's stand-alone program -- just like Triton, it wouldn't recognize the webcam on a test laptop -- but does strip away Triton's obnoxious advertising.
Your address book, available under the same "People" heading, is downloaded automatically from AOL when you sign in to check your e-mail or IM -- but if you start up OpenRide and don't sign in, you can't get to your addresses at all.
OpenRide's media player seems useful only for providing quick access to a song or photo that you want to share over IM or e-mail. You can't shuffle playback of your songs or cue up a playlist, nor can you rotate a picture to the correct orientation or upload it to a photo-sharing site (like, say, AOL Pictures).
This module also offers access to AOL's free, but limited, selection of Web radio, plus file searches on your own hard drive -- provided through AOL Desktop Search, a separate program automatically installed when you add OpenRide to your computer.
There are also larger issues to cramming all of your Internet applications into a bundle like this. The entire concept was once popular -- not just at AOL, but at such competing providers as NetCom and the Pipeline. But all those rivals vanished, in part for reasons that OpenRide demonstrates anew.
A crash in any one component of OpenRide will knock the entire program out of action. But even just typing your e-mail password wrong will lock up OpenRide, thanks to the way the error message pops in front of everything else.
It's also possible for the program to trip over its many feet; it once had trouble keeping up with my typing once I had five browser windows open, an IM chat active and a song playing.
And finally, do you actually want all the things OpenRide bundles in a single program? Combining e-mail and instant messaging makes a certain amount of sense, but the same can't be said for Web browsing. And OpenRide's media player is so stunted that you'll still need separate music and photo programs anyway.
Even with all the problems OpenRide demonstrates, AOL could still make something of it. But for that to happen, the company will have to demonstrate a quality that's been in short supply in this decade: persistence.
AOL has repeatedly released promising applications, such as the AOL Communicator e-mail program, and then abandoned them. It needs to do better with OpenRide, or the logical upgrade path for AOL subscribers will continue to be some other company's Internet software.
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro firstname.lastname@example.org.