RealTime IT News

AOL Previews 6.0 in Select Markets

America Online Inc. late this week released a preview of its latest AOL 6.0 upgraded software to members in select cities.

"It's a measured way for us to gear up for the launch," said Marta Grutka, AOL spokeswoman, confirming the preview. Word of the limited distribution first surfaced in a chatroom on www.newriots.com, an Internet site for web developers.

Chatroom postings say users in the lucky geographic markets can find preview versions of 6.0 by going to Keyword:Upgrade. However, AOL's Grutka said the software upgrade is being offered via a pop-up window to members in select cities.

The preview of AOL 6.0 -- which was touted earlier this year as the centerpiece of its "AOL Anywhere" strategy -- comes at a pivitol time for the nation's leading provider of Internet access. Last spring, when the world caught a glipse of AOL 6.0, the company projected its new version would be ready by late September. The company has already been making noise about voice-recognition/voice-activated Internet access through investments like SpeechWorks International and Quack.com. And Wall Street analysts already have accounted for subscription campaign in their forecasting models for the December quarter.

The company now has a week before Internet World Fall 2000. That said, it's quite possible that Barry Schuler, president of AOL's Interactive Services Group, will show Internet World-goers a preview of the software when he gives his keynote address on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

AOL declined to speculate on when the formal launch (along with the customary multi-million-dollar marketing push) would be, except to say the company is still anticipating a launch this fall. Further guidance could also be giving on Wednesday, Oct. 18, when AOL will report results for the fiscal first quarter.

So what does AOL 6.0 have under the hood? InternetNews.com spoke to a beta tester who has been working closely with the company for several years. He agreed to tell us what he thinks -- on condition of anonymity. The beta tester said AOL 6.0 -- which comes as a 28.6 MB setup file -- features a new toolbar, HTML e-mail capability, an improved address book, a Buddy List with graphics, a new Welcome window, AOL Media Player, AOL Speaks (voice recognition), and a whole lot of bugs.

"They fixed a lot of things that weren't broken," the beta tester said. To be fair, it should be noted this is only one beta tester of many and the reason AOL 6.0 is still in beta is because AOL doesn't feel its ready to be published yet.

One of those things is the toolbar. The toolbar has been color coded and quite a few new icons have been added. But that's not all.

"The whole toolbar is embedded with hard-coded advertisements," the beta tester said. "They used to call it 'Click and Go,' I call it 'Click and Find,'" he said, adding that the addition of drop down menus from the toolbar have made the toolbar layout sloppy and confusing. "You're going to be forever hunting."

He added, "AOL is now saying that they're trying to design their software to graduate people from 5.0 to the next level. They've taken all this content and they've squished it into this little space and they're saying here you go. Good luck."

AOL also promised HTML e-mail with the new version. But the beta tester said that HTML is exactly what users will get -- an e-mail sprinkled liberally with HTML code. The AOL 6.0 mail delivery window is apparently built on a stripped down Microsoft Internet Explorer browser window. The beta tester said a user who has IE 5.0 enhancements -- like the "click" sound produced when Web pages are launched -- will also hear those clicks when opening e-mail in AOL 6.0.

"They took the component that makes Web pages possible and completely rearranged it, badly, so they can do their HTML e-mail," the beta tester said.