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  •   Shannon Henry's The Download:
    Live Discussion With AOL's David Gang

    Shannon Henry
    Shannon Henry

    Thursday, March 4, 1999

    David Gang, senior vice president of strategic development at America Online, joined Download columnist Shannon Henry for a live discussion on the company's Internet products.

    Henry's column, The Download, is a look at the latest deals, hires, and business strategies in the region's technology community. Every other week she hosts a discussion featuring guests making waves in the local tech scene.

    David Gang
    During his tenure at AOL, Gang has directed the development and launch of several key products and releases, including versions 3 and 4 of the AOL client software, parental controls and the "Buddy List" feature. Gang is currently responsible for and its accompanying Internet products, including AOL Instant Messenger, My News and AOL NetMail.

    Gang was live with Henry on Thursday, March 4; the transcript follows.

    Shannon Henry: Hi, Welcome to another installment of Download Live. Whether you're a tech business person or an AOL customer (or both), here's your chance to quiz David Gang, the person who brought you AOL 4.0, Instant Messenger and Buddy Lists, among other things. Thanks for joining us, David.

    Shannon Henry: What are the major changes to 4.0 from the previous version, and can you tell us how you decide to make these changes? Focus groups?

    David Gang: The way we started making changes to 4.0 was by interviewing call center reps and we said: What are our members saying to you? What problems are they having? The original focus of AOL 4.0 was to make it so much easier to use. Basically what we did is we met with them, and identified 35 top issues members were having with product, and that became the core features and functionalities we added to 4.0. We saw then an opportunity to get AOL out to millions more people, and the only way we could do that is by listening to members, and we did that through the call center reps.

    Shannon Henry: How do you personally use instant messaging and buddy lists? What kinds of conversations do well with instant messaging and which don't?

    David Gang: There's nothing more important to me as an AOL user than Instant Messaging and Buddy Lists. It's hard for me to remember the days *before* buddy lists. The way I use Instant Messaging – and I'll typically have 5-7 messages going on at the same time – is wide ranging, you can get a quick conversation and get task accomplished with someone at the same time. The old conventional way of connecting was to pick up the phone – it's hard to have a quick conversation on the phone. One of the top uses of IMing is to get quick answers to quick questions, you can get a lot of rapid-fire things done that you can't traditionally get accomplished when you're talking one-on-one.

    Fairfax, Virginia: Will the next version of AOL Instant Messenger have a pager option? Yahoo's messaging service has a popup window appear you once you receive new e-mail.

    David Gang: We're continuing to add new features to Instant Messenger. You'll see all sorts of new stuff coming out. We have Instant Messenger 2.0 that just went into preview, and that's available on Version 2.0 has a bunch of new features, including chat, so you can now have chats via Instant Messenger. You'll also see new things come about that will be more conventional-type features as we make sure the product is more mainstream in the personal and business world.

    Fairfax, Virginia: I am receving a lot of SPAM from AOL e-mail addresses. What steps is AOL taking to rectify this issue?

    David Gang: First of all, the number 1 thing you can do to control spam is keyword mail controls. Safety and privacy is the #1 priority for AOL, and mail controls allow members to control flow of information from coming from people on AOL and the Internet.

    In addition, we have a lot of ongoing technology projects on the back end that help reduce the flow of spam to our members.

    Washington: AOL packages information in a way that thousands of internet newbies never have a real or complete exposure to of the WWW. How would you respond to this statement? Shannon? David?

    David Gang: AOL has done an incredible job in integrating the Web into the core experience. Version 4.0's focus was to make AOL and the Web one experience. In the new nav bar on 4.0, you can type in keyword sports and go to sports channel, or or type in and go directly to CBS Sportsline. We're trying to make sure it's a singular experience. And surveys have shown that the Web is very fast for our members. I think in 4.0 and the continued buildouts, we've made sure that members have great Web experience, and that there's no difference between the navigation between AOL and the Web. And The results are showing that that's what our members really think.

    Garden City, NY: I'm excited about pictures online. What can you tell me about AOL's plans for online imaging?

    David Gang: We've got an exciting new service we're launching with Kodak and it's called "You've Got Pictures." The focus is you've got pictures as a convenient and fun way to store your pictures online. You'll take your pictures and drop them off at a participating nationwide retailer, check the AOL box, put your screen name on it and within 48 hours of that happening, your pictures are now loaded up to AOL. It will actually be on the welcome screen--you'll sign on and get notification that your pictures are in and you'll instantly be able to share them with your friends and family. "You've Got Pictures" will launch in a few select cities this spring, and it'll roll out from there.

    Dulles, VA: Who was your favorite Beatle?

    David Gang: Ringo.

    Shannon Henry: How are parents controlling the way their kids use AOL or what they see through the service? Do you have any new parental control plans?

    David Gang: We continue to add a lot to parental controls. Again, safety is a major priority for us and we continue to make parental controls easier to use and put more control into the parents' hands. We've added the ability to control usage of premium services – the access kids have to games, for example – and the ability to give different access to the Web. And we continue to add more features based on feedback we get from parents--we take a look at each feature and allow parents to customize online access for their kids.

    Shannon Henry: Since you started at AOL, how have you seen chatting evolve? If an anthropologist studied AOL chats what would he or she learn about our culture?

    David Gang: When I started at AOL, everyone was looking at all the different ways we use chat and whether we should add video to it or talk capabilities to it and what really has emerged is that what makes chat work on the Web is the fact that it's text-based. There are two things that make chat great on web: 1) the fact that it's text-based and 2)the size of the crowd. All places to chat on the Web are about meeting people, like at a sporting event or a town square, so the crowd is really important. So, the thing with text is that is creates an environment in a world where people are more open and more trusting – it's taking away all the barriers of standard communication that we have in regular life. So much of that focuses on body language and emotions we have in a standard conversation. With chat, in the safety of my home, typing my text, I can be more open, I can tell you how I feel. That's what makes it work – you can build a better relationship foundation and that's the charm of chat. It allows people to be open, to be who they want to be, that's what people will find when they study it later – it's the most open way of getting to know people.

    Shannon Henry: So far, are instant messaging and buddy lists used mostly by individual consumers and not businesses (besides at AOL, I know you all use those technologies constantly...)? How will businesses use these services?

    David Gang: Businesses are starting to use Instant Messaging – that's starting to emerge, and we can tell that by the amount of hours people use the product during the day. And what will happen is the technology will get more integrated with other applications during the course of time. Lotus Notes, for example, has announced a release that includes a link to Instant Messenger. So that's what you'll see us do over time is include Instant Messaging in applications with partners so the benefit of the immediate conversation, the ability to complete multiple tasks at the same time will be integrated into people's daily applications and that will make it much, much more valuable.

    Dulles VA: So what is the next big application that you see on the horizon – many years after the Internet got started, here we are still using e-mail, instant messaging, etc. Do you think that broadband will bring something new that we haven't even thought of yet, or will there be incremental change at this point?

    David Gang: We're working on a strategy called AOl Anywhere, and the whole concept of AOL Anywhere is that as the next generation of devices come about that you can connect to AOL from anyplace, from any device. Only 25 percent of U.S. households are connected to the Internet, we're aggressively going after the remaining 75 percent. Many people are going to be using other devices – set top boxes, for example, to connect to the Internet.

    Basically, broadband to us will be an upgrade for members. Members will have ability to use features that they've used and loved for years, but also get the instant on, or always on as well as a speed upgrade from broadband. And speed is really viewed as an upgrade for our members, the way to do more stuff faster.

    Newark, NJ: I've heard about AOL Anywhere... what does it mean? Can I get AOL other places beside my account?

    David Gang: AOL Anywhere means that you can get AOL features from, or from any computer connected to the Web.

    Shannon Henry: Well, that's it for today. Thanks for the great questions and thoughtful answers. Stay tuned.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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