RealTime IT News

AOL Offers Glimpse of 9.0

With the next installment of its service, America Online plans a full makeover for the instant messaging client bundled with its service, and also hopes to boost the attractiveness of its dial-up service through speed enhancements.

The AOL Time Warner unit confirmed Thursday that AOL 9.0 Optimized, the next version of the AOL and AOL for Broadband services, will be made available to current subscribers through an exclusive preview later this summer, and will be released to the public in the fall.

The new version is a continuation of the company's efforts to add value to the America Online service -- which is struggling to increase its membership in competition with Internet ISPs, and other online services like MSN.

The firm has kicked off a special online promotional campaign, dubbed "Voices," to publicize the new version. Created by AtmosphereBBDO, the campaign presents brief animated messages that introduce specific features of AOL 9.0 Optimized. Users can sign up for an alert that will let them know when the new version is available for download.

The new version focuses on improving one of the company's biggest draws, the highly-popular instant messaging feature, with a host of new capabilities, including 3D animated "SuperBuddy" icons. The icons use color and sound to translate common chat abbreviations like "LOL" into animations. For instance, when a member types "LOL," (which stands for Laughing Out Loud) AOL said a character may act out the acronym by laughing with comical gestures or expressions. The SuperBuddy icons will only be available to AOL subscribers, not to users of AOL's free AIM service.

AOL Thursday released the results of a survey by Opinion Research Corp. on behalf of AOL, which found that 76 percent of the online population uses instant messenger applications. The survey also found that 93 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds online use instant messaging. In addition, 80 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds use an IM application and 71 percent of those 35 and older do so. The survey results -- based on 3,650 respondents, 13 years and older, in 18 markets around the country -- showed that AOL is still the most popular IM application, with 60 percent of users saying they utilize AOL or AIM. MSN's application followed with 45 percent and Yahoo's version scored 37 percent.

The new IM features in 9.0 seek to continue that popularity and give users a reason to stick with AOL, because members need to upgrade to AOL 9.0 Optimized to see and share SuperBuddy icons. Those that don't will simply see static, 2D graphics when chatting with 9.0 users.

AOL said that at launch, the SuperBuddy cast will include more than 50 original icons, from animals to people to funny objects. The icons will have different moods, personalities and traits. Celebrities will also round out the cast, starting with actor Ben Stiller and TV personality Star Jones, host of ABC's The View. The company said a more complete celebrity edition is in development for later in the year.

Other features include:

  • The ability to create multiple personalities using My AOL Expressions; allowing members to store different sets of IM expressions and switch between them on the fly or copy friend's expressions; AOL said members will be able to search thousands of AOL buddy icons, sound effects, wallpaper motifs, AOL desktops and smileys; they will also have the ability to choose from a broader selection of One-Click Themes or use the new "Randomize" feature for automatic choices; additionally, the company said members will be able to create a colorful text design for their Screen Names as they appear on other users' Buddy List feature
  • File transfer, giving members the ability to share files directly with an AOL or AIM service buddy without having to upload or download the file
  • AOL Talk, giving members the ability to hold real-time voice conversations with other AOL and AIM users through a PC microphone or an Internet (USB) phone
  • AOL Video Messenger, allowing members with webcams to capture a video clip and send it to other AOL members; users can also select prerecorded video clips from AOL's new Fun Clips library
  • Instant Images, offering built-in integration with the company's new You've Got Pictures to make it easy to send digital photos through instant messages
  • AOL IM Bots, allowing users to send IMs to specially automated Screen Names in order to get information like Yellow Pages information, stock quotes, news, movie listings, sports scores and weather information.

But IM isn't the sole focus of 9.0. The company is also offering a number of other new features, including the addition of Web accelerator technology. Like a number of its competitors, which already offer similar technology, AOL's core subscriber base remains dial-up users. The Web accelerator technology enhances the speed of the dial-up connection, which AOL hopes will secure subscribers who would like a faster connection but don't want to pay the additional cost of broadband.

The new version also features built-in spam filters and enhanced parental controls, including a parentally-controlled prepaid card that will allow parents to give their children an online allowance. In addition, the company said 9.0 will be a significant upgrade for AOL Mail, which offers new capabilities for more "active and advanced email users" while still retaining AOL's ease-of-use. The new mail features include a "Manage Mail" tab that gives a view of all mail from one place, the ability to store up to 20MB of mail on AOL's servers, an expanded library of stationary designs, smileys, art and sound effects, and a new "Mail QuickView" feature which allows members to see recently received mail at-a-glance.

"AOL 9.0 Optimized is the company's third upgrade in the last 10 months, and underscores our focus on relentless innovation to deliver what's most important to our members -- providing increased safety and security protections, making their lives easier, and bringing the fun back to being online," Gang said.