AOL Opens E-Mail Access to Third Party Clients

Subscribers of America Online may soon be free to choose their own preferred e-mail client, continuing a recent move by the company away from a single integrated client.

AOL is expanding an earlier beta test of a standalone dialer to include the capacity to use rich third party software to check member e-mail. The dialer is expected to ship as part of the forthcoming Tahiti upgrade to the AOL client, which is scheduled to ship early next year.

In the past, AOL's rudimentary e-mail support epitomized a longstanding gripe of its subscribers: not having access to a decent mail client to manage their accounts.

While recent client updates have attempted to prop up the viability of AOL Mail, a post-merger Time Warner publicly acknowledged that it was dumping the client for internal use due to its lackluster performance. Given the choice, AOL subscribers can now do the same without abandoning the service outright.

As a result of AOL's shift in tactics, a plethora of commercial and freeware e-mail applications are now supported by the client - so long as they employ SMTP for sending mail and IMAP4 for reading mail. AOL offhandedly lists compatibility with Microsoft Outlook and Outlook Express and Qualcomm's Eudora. Clients that are POP3 exclusive will not work with the new capability, dubbed Open Mail Access.

Open Mail Access becomes one of many recent efforts by AOL to give subscribers more flexibility, as the company attempts to fend off broadband rivals leeching off its customer base.

Last month, AOL enabled concurrent logins for its instant messaging network, a feature that is designed to allow members to use the independent AIM client. AOL in August released AOL Communicator, a standalone application for e-mail and instant messaging targeted at broadband users.

"Back in July, Microsoft announced the Outlook Connector for MSN, which would let people synchronize MSN e-mail, calendars and contacts to Outlook. The AOL Dialer would appear to be in part a response to that, but focused on Outlook Express," Joe Wilcox, senior analyst at Jupiter Research, told BetaNews. "Considering OE ships with Windows, most consumers have this e-mail client available to them. Many less would have Outlook."

The Outlook Connector entered beta testing on Tuesday.

No specific timetable has been set for the inclusion of Open Mail Access into AOL's primary offerings.

Earlier this week, AOL released an updated version of the Tahiti code to its testers. The upgrade branched out from the client to include anti-spyware technology meant to protect customers' Internet experience. The service provider also issued a "light" version of Tahiti aimed at providing a comparably rich client to subscribers with older PCs, while not skimping on the security features introduced in AOL 9 Optimized.

In an endeavor complimentary to the light edition of its client software, AOL also announced that it will providing low-cost PCs to subscribers in exchange for a $300 USD and a year of customer loyalty. The PC, dubbed "AOL Optimized" is being built by Systemax. AOL has launched a Web site to promote its belt-tightening offer.

"AOL's margins are typically higher for dial-up than broadband, so the low-cost PC is a way of wooing would-be dial-up customers," explained Jupiter's Wilcox.

AOL members interested in participating in the Open Mail Access beta can visit Keyword: "beta" and click the link labeled "Open Mail Access."

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