RealTime IT News

AOL Delivers 'Open Mail'

Looking to keep subscribers by making it easier to access their e-mail, America Online rolled out a new feature today to let members download messages via other programs, including those developed by rival Microsoft.

The Dulles, Va., ISP's "Open Mail" offering supports the latest version of the Internet Message Access Protocol, a standard for retrieving e-mail messages that was came out of Stanford University in 1986.

The IMAP is similar to the Post Office Protocol, but supports some additional features. For example, the IMAP stores messages and folders on a server, automatically synchronizes messages and folders and display messages faster.

"Members have wanted more choice in how they access AOL mail," AOL spokeswoman Jaymelina Esmele told internetnews.com. "A lot of people at work use Outlook or Outlook Express. This allows them to view all their mail at once."

The free service has been in testing for about three months and is expected to appeal to AOL for Broadband subscribers, Esmele said. Besides e-mail applications from Microsoft, Open Mail can be accessed through Eudora and Entourage for Mac.

AOL members who access Open Mail through third-party e-mail applications will still be protected by the ISP's spam filters. Users' settings that block e-mail from certain senders, or that contain certain words, will remain in effect.

Another new offering is the AOL Toolbar for Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser. The toolbar gives members easy access to AOL Search, Yellow Pages, MapQuest, Moviefone, Weather and CityGuide. It also includes a built-in Web pop-up blocker and provides quick access to mail and instant messaging from the browser.

The e-mail and toolbar are part of AOL's efforts to make its services and content more accessible and attractive. While the ISP is still making money for its parent, media giant Time Warner, about 2 million subscribers are still defecting to lower-priced rivals and high-speed providers every year.

The moves represents a slow shift for AOL, which once walled off customers from other Internet players. But as users become more mobile, and more likely to access their messages through different devices and e-mail clients, flexibility is key to keeping users.

(Relations with Microsoft also appear to be thawing. Time Warner and Microsoft recently made a joint investment in a digital right management startup Content Guard.)

On the new features side, AOL took a second stab at online bill payment tools for its members. Unlike its previous incarnation, the online payment service is free to users and is being positioned as part of "life-management" offerings.

AOL also recently introduced streaming media coverage of Major League Baseball, to keep up with Microsoft's MSN and EarthLink, which also have baseball and other sports content.