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AOL to Offer Total Care PC Protection

AOL  has entered the home computer security realm, offering users a look-see at Total Care, its umbrella suite of PC protection.

The offering puts AOL in the same security software arena as Microsoft  and Symantec &nsp;for PC security.

But in this offering, the ISP is reaching out to non-subscribers too, as AOL mulls a future in which it evolves to a free, ad-supported portal model such as Yahoo, with a bevvy of content and tools along with free e-mail.

"The goal is to become the IT professional for the home," AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein told internetnews.com.

The all-encompassing security suite, available as a premium service to computer users, features both traditional security software tools blocking virus, spyware and phishing threats, as well as PC maintenance functions including a firewall, backup software, tech support and protection against ID theft.

Some functions, such as computer backup, phishing and ID theft protection are not part of the beta version.

Although aimed at all computer users, the free test version, available at beta.aol.com, is available only to AOL subscribers right now, according to Weinstein. The final version will be available by the end of the year at an undisclosed price.

When it does launch, it will be competing with all-in-one security packages, including Microsoft's OneCare, Symantec's Norton 360 and McAfee's  Falcon.

However, increasingly ISPs, such as AOL, are the preferred provider for security products, said Wilcox. In June, Qwest  said it would provide Microsoft’s OneCare free to Internet subscribers.

"For the last several years, ISPs have been increasingly critical players in the consumer Internet security market," Gartner's Lydia Leong said.

McAfee is just one company contributing to AOL's new security service. While the security vendor assists with antivirus and firewall support, MarkMonitor provides an antiphishing component and Lolo Technologies helps with maintenance chores.

Partial coverage is no longer enough, Weinstein said. Increasingly, the lines between threats are blurred, agreed Joe Wilcox of JupiterResearch.

AOL pointed to its "ladder of assistance" as making the difference between Total Care and similar products already available. Users needing help with a security problem can first turn a free online tutorial, then move onto PC-based and telephone support, according to Weinstein. If an answer cannot be found using the free options, Total Care offers in-home tech visits through an arrangement with Gurus2go. While this final step in the assistance ladder comes with a fee, the ISP declined to quote a price.

The AOL spokesperson also points to Total Care's online backup feature, allowing users to protect data without a hard drive or cd burner, as a service unavailable elsewhere.

What prompted AOL's decision to offer Total Care to non-subscribers? It’s one way to provide security to those who don’t want the entire AOL package, according to Weinstein. Wilcox pointed to the number of non-AOL subscribers using the ISP’s instant messenger application, AIM.

Could the outreach be part of AOL’s reported plans to drop subscription fees in favor of online advertising? But AOL refused to comment on the report it may shift to a revenue model akin to Yahoo or Google.

"It's more about brand," Wilcox said. An increasing number of AOL's customers are outside their core services.

AOL's entry into the security market could help add some luster to a brand that has taken some hits recently. Total Care helps associate AOL "with something important, that is safety," Wilcox said.