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.
the other hand, the beta tester said the new address book is superior to previous versions, except for the fact that it is no longer saved to a user’s hard drive. Instead it is saved directly to AOL’s servers. The idea behind this move is to allow a user to sign on as a guest and still have access to the address book.
“Can we say privacy issues?” the beta tester asked. “So now AOL has taken it upon themselves to save my address book on their servers? It is bad enough my Buddy List is on their servers. I do not care how many times AOL claims our privacy is their foremost concern…I personally believe this is really part of their ‘AOL Anywhere’ scheme. Now they will have all my Internet contacts to send one of those “700 hours free” CDs to.”
However, he noted, “This is pure speculation of course. I could never prove such a thing.”
As noted previously, the Buddy List has been enhanced with graphics, although users will need a screen resolution of 600×800 or higher, the beta tester said. “Sure it looks okay…it’s just bulky and could have been designed smaller.”
The beta tester was also disappointed with the AOL Media Player, which plays WAV, MID and MP3 files. It is based on a stripped down version of WinAmp, which AOL owns through its subsidiary NullSoft.
“The AOL Media Player gets the job done, but at a price,” the beta tester said. “It has always seemed to bog my system down.” He added that the sound quality is lacking and that it can’t play compressed music.
Finally, people who rush to download AOL 6.0 because they’re tired of typing and want to speak and have AOL Speaks type the words for them will be disappointed. The software will only be available through the AOL 6.0 CD. The beta tester we spoke to couldn’t test the software because he couldn’t get it to work. He said other beta testers he spoke to did get it running and it is basically a branded version of Dragon Systems Inc.’s Naturally Speaking voice recognition software. This begs the question: What will current users of Naturally Speaking, many of whom bought the software through AOL at $99.99 (it sells in most stores for $129) think of the fact that AOL is giving away something for which they had to pay?