AOL Launches Alternative IE Browser

America Online has released the final version of AOL Explorer, an alternative Internet Explorer based Web browser that the company has been beta testing since last October.

The browser is a standalone application that features tabbed browsing, Web thumbnails and a built-in RSS feed aggregator. A customizable side panel enables users to load third-party add-ons into the browser, such as a calendar or panel that displays incoming mail. AOL has also included its desktop search product as an optional download.

When asked why the company opted to build its own browser, AOL product marketing director Kerry Parkins told BetaNews that "Firefox showed there was a market," but had "compatibility problems with sites."

AOL wanted to "pursue a course where people could download and the browser just works," Parkins said. "Once they got it installed, it just worked. All their favorites, everything."

Surprisingly, AOL has also revived its Netscape browser, which is being developed at the same time as AOL Explorer. Despite the products offering similar features, AOL says the browsers are not competing products. Netscape is built atop Firefox, but touts more advanced privacy features and the option to load Web sites using Internet Explorer's Trident engine for compatibility purposes.

"[Netscape's] portal is more business focused and more technical savvy, as is their browser. The AOL portal is more mainstream, with a multimedia mom and pop experience," explained Parkins. "[AOL Explorer] plays into that."

AOL plans to advertise AOL Explorer with the upcoming re-launch of AOL.com. The new browser will also be promoted on the AIM Today screen for AOL Instant Messenger users. Additional integration plans are in the works as well.

The company won't be directly telling its users to dump Internet Explorer, but AOL does think its homemade browser sports some compelling features that won't be available from Microsoft until IE7. AOL says it has also shored up security by fixing some IE flaws Microsoft has yet to patch.

Now that AOL Explorer has left beta, AOL will send a new version of AIM into testing that includes the browser as an optional bundle. The company tested this approach with an AIM 5.9 beta release, but dropped the feature for the final release following user complaints.

Parkins reiterated to BetaNews that consumers do not have to install AOL Explorer with AIM. But it's clear that AOL's 22 million instant messaging users are a good way for the company to gain market share for its new browser.

AOL Explorer is available for download via FileForum.

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