AOL Heads in New Direction with 'Helix'

AOL has released the first beta of a new software application code-named "Helix," which pulls together e-mail, IM, Web browsing into a single user interface designed to ease multitasking. Helix succeeds "OpenRide," the software AOL pitched as an upgrade to its aging client.

Although it won't say so openly, Helix is essentially an upgrade of OpenRide; installing the former overwrites the latter. AOL's almost schizophrenic approach to application development -- Communicator, "Fanfare" and AOL Suite were all developed for a similar purpose over the last six years, but eventually fell by the wayside -- highlights the struggle the company faces in its ongoing transition from ISP to Web services provider.

"People who are currently using OpenRide can continue to do so. With this new downloadable software, we've taken the learnings from OpenRide -- which allowed us to test a different AOL experience with our audience -- to continue to improve on the AOL software," an AOL spokesperson told BetaNews.

AOL says its goal is to offer users a familiar AOL experience updated with several new features improving functionality. This sums up the primary problem the company has to overcome: switching to completely Web-based services without abandoning those customers who enjoy the all-in-one desktop client.

OpenRide was the first fruits of that effort, and Helix is ostensibly version 2.0. Instead of being split into four quadrants containing a Web browser, IM client, e-mail and a media center, Helix takes a more free-form approach to windows within a window. Essentially, Helix itself becomes the users desktop, and a "AppMap" button provides an overview of opened windows, much like Expose does in Mac OS X.

Other features new in Helix include a full-fledged AIM 6.1 client, support for multiple mailboxes from any provider in the same window, and a new tabbed interface for navigating multiple e-mail, browser and IM windows without cluttering the screen.

But exactly where Helix will fall into the grand scheme of AOL's product offerings is currently unclear. The company says it has not decided on a final name for Helix as of yet, indicating it will not simply be OpenRide 2.0. Even more confusing, then, is what happens to OpenRide, which AOL pitched last year as the future of the AOL client.

It seems customers didn't buy into the OpenRide concept, although it's not clear how much of that is because of the muddled message coming from AOL. The company was hesitant to force any upgrade, as 40 percent of customers still use the older client, which amounts to 80 percent of the company's total pageviews - and, thus, the vast majority of its advertising revenue.

Further complicating the situation, AOL has restarted development of the 9.0 version of its client software, which has largely remained stagnant since its debut in 2003. A minor upgrade arrived in late 2004, and a "Vista Ready" version came earlier this year. Now, AOL is preparing version 9.1, promising new features for broadband and removing the requirement for users to be logged into the AOL service.

For now, it seems AOL is simply throwing everything it can in the hope that something sticks with customers before they inevitably depart. Helix, which is still in the early stages of beta testing, is the most promising answer thus far, combining the classic AOL style with its new Web-based services in an application that actually feels cohesive rather than duct-taped together.

The Helix beta, which is at version 2.0.26.1 despite AOL's assurances it is a different product than OpenRide, is available for download now from FileForum.

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