AOL Preps Image Makeover on AOL.com

America Online, acknowledging that its subscriber base is declining, is relying on its Web presence to re-brand itself and dislodge customers' mental associations that it is nothing more than an ISP.

In an effort to earn a new reputation as a leading Internet destination, AOL will open up to a wider audience on the Web through AOL.com. The portal will re-launch in beta form on Tuesday, offering visitors free Web mail, exclusive audio and video content, and access to a number of AOL services previously available only to subscribers.

Since the beginning of 2005, AOL has fleshed out its open Web strategy one grain of sand at a time. The company began by revamping its search properties to be easier to use and locally relevant, then proceeded to open its AIM presence to partners and online communities. A new public face for the SingingFish media search engine followed, along with its own Web browser called AOL Explorer.

In April, AOL announced it was partnering with XM Satellite Radio to make available 130 of its radio stations and 20 XM stations for unlimited listening at no cost. More recently, AOL rolled out free Web mail for AIM users with 2 gigabytes of storage, and is now preparing to overhaul the AIM client to an open platform called Triton.

All of these elements have been brought together to form the new AOL.com, which is expected to officially go live in late July. The focus of the site will be on emerging trends, resulting in a juxtaposition of services that range from the familiar search features, to broadband multimedia content and integrated RSS feeds from around the Web.

A feature called LiveWeb further underscores the desire of AOL to reach out to the masses. AOL editors will scour the blogosphere for hot topics and link interesting content directly from AOL.com. The company hopes the new AOL.com will bring back the perception that it can be as modern as its rivals.

Despite the impression that AOL is simply a dial-up provider, the company draws nearly as many unique visitors across its properties each month as Web leader Yahoo. But an image makeover won't be an easy undertaking, AOL director of product marketing Kerry Parkins conceded to BetaNews.

"A lot of people have this perception of AOL being this declining dial up service and when everybody talks about AOL they say, 'all of the members are leaving,' and that's the way that they characterize our company," Parkins said. "The reality is that AOL has a very profitable and quickly growing Web business."

One of the things AOL is doing to aid this transition is taking advantage of new trends such as RSS, or really simple syndication, which the company says isn't actually that simple. AOL will apply to RSS its aptitude for making things easier with the launch of "My AOL" in July.

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