RealTime IT News

EarthLink: 2003 and Beyond

EarthLink is planning a slew of product releases for 2003 that the company feels will give it a competitive advantage over its main rivals MSN, and the phone and cable companies. It says its user base is more demanding and sophisticated than the population at its rivals.

The company says that a recent survey of its user base identified seven types of ISP customers: independents, those seeking convenience, tech-savvy folks, those seeking value, those seeking community, newbies, and families. EarthLink scored highest among the tech savvy, the independent, and those seeking convenience. A relatively small portion of its user base were newbies, community-seekers, and families.

"Because our users are more sophisticated," said Jim Anderson, EarthLink vice president of product development, "we see demand trends ahead of time."

EarthLink sees demand growing in the following five categories:

  • spam blocking
  • privacy and protection tools
  • virus blocking
  • parental controls
  • additional e-mail services

In the area of spam blocking, EarthLink continues to pursue spammers in court and recently won a $24 million judgement. The company partners with Brightmail to provide its users, for free, a server-side anti-spam solution that blocks 80 percent of all spam. Unfortunately, the volume of spam is increasing across the Internet, and EarthLink customers are starting to complain.

In response, EarthLink plans a permission-based approach. When an unknown person sends an e-mail to an EarthLink customer, the person is asked to send a message of about 20 characters to the EarthLink customer. The customer reads and message and, using a simple web interface, chooses whether to accept or block the sender. An accepted sender is immediately added to the e-mail address book.

"For dial-up users, it's important that suspect e-mails not get downloaded," enthused Rob Kaiser, EarthLink vice president for narrowband marketing.

At present, EarthLink's proprietary permission-based solution is only compatible with the address book of its own e-mail client, but EarthLink is working on adding compatibility with other address books, such as that of Microsoft's Outlook. The permission based solution will launch before the middle of the year, at no additional fee to EarthLink customers.

In the area of privacy and protection tools, EarthLink intends to supplement its free pop up blocker with spyware detection and removal, cookie management, and prevention of other forms of intrusive advertising. "We're not opposed to advertising, and we're not opposed to Internet advertising, but we are opposed to intrusive advertising," explained Anderson.

He added that an increasing number of customer service calls are about problems caused by spyware that customers do not know they have. "When people find that stuff on their machine, they feel a real violation of trust," he noted.

In the area of virus protection, EarthLink will provide free server-side anti-virus protection for e-mail. Here, the company will need to tread carefully, making sure that users understand what the service can and cannot do. Other ISPs in the U.S. feel that server-side anti-virus protection is the correct thing to do, but have not implemented it because of fears of legal liability. It will be interesting to see how EarthLink provides the service to users but explains to them that the service is not perfect.

EarthLink also plans to offer a premium service that will protect customers' PCs from virus transmitted through vectors other than e-mail, such as HTTP and floppy disks. Pricing plans were not disclosed.

These products will launch in the third quarter of this year.

Concerned that it is not the first name people think of when looking for an ISP offering parental control to families, EarthLink partnered with developer Surf Money in 2001 and acquired it at the end of 2002. In the second quarter of 2003, EarthLink will launch a solution providing kid-friendly content, a kid-friendly e-mail client, and even a closed instant messaging cloud that is also kid-friendly (and, coincidentally, not compatible with the instant messagers of AOL and Microsoft).

When filtering web content, parents will be able to choose between heavy, medium, or low protection for their children. "If your teenager is doing research for, say, a biology paper, you might need to lower the filter level. We will allow parents to do that," noted Kaiser.

The company is also concerned that some services that could potentially serve objectionable pages be available to kids who have a legitimate use for them. Search engines are a particular concern. The company is developing a solution that will replace objectionable words with asterisks (the "*" sign) but nevertheless serve a page unless a threshold of objectionable words is reached. "At that point," said Kaiser, "we suspect that the search may have been problematic and we can block the entire page."

In the e-mail services area, EarthLink is working with PDA vendors and OS developers to support wireless products, webmail, and desktop clients. "Although these services may be most used initially by mobile professionals," said Anderson, "we believe that the products will become more pervasive as prices drop."

All of this represents a significant investment into in-house development to provide products for customers. The company expects to recoup it by keeping the customers it has and acquiring its competitors' customers. "We think we're the only major ISP left that's just an ISP," said Anderson. "You've got content plays, and price plays, and companies that offer service bundles. We only do Internet. We're focused on doing it better."