AOL to Release 9.0 Security Edition

The message coming from America Online could not be any clearer: "We will keep our customers safe online." Even though the market is awash with security software, AOL has stepped in for its members and delivered a fortified version of AOL 9.0, dubbed "Security Edition," that secures the perimeter around its flagship client software.

Customers who download AOL 9.0 Security Edition will receive antivirus software and a firewall from McAfee, spyware detection, a pop-up blocker and a host of other amenities at no additional charge. AOL has also worked under the hood on an assortment of improvements that advance the quality of its service.

Code-named "Strauss," the release is designed to meet AOL's self-imposed checklist of safe online consumer needs which includes: a firewall, on- and off-line antivirus and spyware detection, parental controls, pop-up blocking, as well as protection from Spam and SpIM.


In a sit down interview, an AOL spokesperson explained the rationale behind the release by citing a National Cyber Security Alliance in-home study which concluded that 80 percent of home computers contain spyware. The study also concluded that while many users believe they are safe from online threats, more than two-thirds did not have current virus protection software.

After deciding to step in to protect its subscribers, AOL extended some safety features to work offline. Software such as McAfee VirusScan Online, Personal Firewall Express and AOL SpyZapper are full-fledged retail quality applications that continually monitor the computing environment for vulnerabilities. The system is configured to keep up to date with automatic updates and schedules weekly spyware scans. Upgrades to McAfee software will be distributed through AOL's client software at the end of AOL sessions.

Scans include protection against viruses embedded in JPEG images.

The company is particularly concerned with spyware, adware and other malware due to their tendency to induce performance issues and connection problems that customers may inadvertently associate with AOL. A spokesperson chimed in that AOL is also mindful about personally identifiable or otherwise sensitive customer information falling into the hands of malicious individuals.

In partnership with the Experian credit rating bureau, another offline security mechanism called "Money Alerts" provides customers with notification for all unauthorized activity on registered credit cards and bank accounts. AOL members determine what price ceiling is right for them, and will receive "Certified AOL e-mails" on their desktop computer, PDAs or cell phones when the limit is violated.

Family Matters

In previous AOL releases, Parental Controls have played a valuable role in empowering parents to decide what online experience was appropriate for their children. However, peace of mind came at the expense of children's academic freedom and intellectual curiosity as well as parents who faced the headache inducing scenario of approving requests from their children to view legitimate Web sites. AOL has responded to the inherent need for children to search the Internet for school and their own personal interests with "Teen Search." Teen Search shields children from inappropriate content by establishing a "green zone" of trusted, pre-screened Web sites.

In a follow up to this release, AOL will launch a feature which gives parents the final approval over children's incoming instant messages.

AOL Ups Anti-Spam Ante

The ongoing saga of the service provider versus the spammer carries over into Strauss. AOL has simplified and fine tuned its Spam controls with "high," "medium" and "low" settings for its adaptive Spam filters. In a related matter, the cat and mouse game against SpIM (unsolicited instant messengers) has benefited from AOL's past experiences in fighting Spam. The release has a "Report Spam IM" button that permits users to instantly block messages from unknown senders all while simultaneously furthering AOL's understanding of the black art of bulk messaging.

AOL tackled another nuance with the inclusion of Web pop-up controls that blocks its namesake pop-up ad, as well as floating and rich media advertisements.

Keeping Customers in the Loop

Although it is designed to protect the masses, Security-minded do-it-yourself members will be relieved to know that AOL's Strauss client does not supersede existing security software; however, users do have the option to supersede conventional passwords.

For some AOL users, passwords have become akin to computing dinosaurs. America Online has partnered with RSA Security to create AOL PassCode, a premium service that secures and manages AOL ScreenNames wherever a user signs on.

As reported by BetaNews, AOL PassCode utilizes a SecurID two-factor authentication scheme where a random six-digit numeric code is generated every 60 seconds from a keychain sized device. Those digits are used in combination with a user's AOL password.

Other advanced features are a "Clear My Footprints" function that permits members to remove saved cookies and clear the browser cache and AOL Security Alerts that keep members up-to-date on the latest security bulletins using the same notification infrastructure as Money Alerts.

Lastly, AOL has consolidated everything security into a single unified destination. Similar to Microsoft's Security Center in Windows XP SP2, users receive status displays on what protections are enabled and when they were last run. An AOL spokesperson told BetaNews that discussions with OEMs to farm out its security solutions were ongoing.

Every SKU of the next generation AOL client software will incorporate the release's security safeguards.

Fine Tuning Strauss

While it had its hands dirty underneath the hood, AOL turned its attention toward boosting performance and usability while managing to squeeze in a premium option as an incentive for its subscribers to stick with AOL.

AOL has enhanced its Computer Check-up tool with the ability to schedule and run while offline. Likewise, a limited edition of the 9.0 client software automatically optimizes itself for low-RAM machines without omitting security features.

Attention was also given to what AOL deems "perceived performance" as opposed to actual. Fast start functionally is AOL-speak for a "stub" that runs continuously so that part of the client will always be active. When users want to use AOL, it will appear to be available more quickly than in the past.

Usability has evolved in that AOL has decided to be an "XP good citizen" and support multiple sessions through XP's fast user switching; established dialup number recommendations that are closest to user's homes and eliminated steps for Broadband users to get online; upgraded spell checker and inline grammar correction; as well a new favorite places list. Dubbed "My Routines," the feature adds sites -- with the user's approval -- based upon frequency as opposed to recording the URL.

Lastly, "AOL Call Alert" is a premium service that is an enhanced version of "Take the Call." Missed calls are transferred from users' home numbers to alternative contact numbers such as cell phones or even hotel rooms. AOL also permits calls to be transferred to IM Voice Over IP (VOIP) for a duration of three minutes.

AOL 9.0 Security Edition will be distributed through AOL's usual distribution channels and at Keyword: Upgrade. Broadband users who are currently paying for antivirus services will no longer be billed.

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