AOL Woos Subscribers with Communicator Preview

After over two years of development, AOL has made available a preview release of its new standalone e-mail client dubbed AOL Communicator. Communicator is one of many applications and services AOL plans to offer members in an effort to reinvigorate diminishing subscriber growth.

As first reported by BetaNews, a beta version of Communicator -- code-named Photon -- first cropped up last November. At the time, AOL was unsure how it would market the product and whether it would compete with the company's fledgling Netscape browser suite. But recent financial troubles and management shakeups have forced AOL to focus on improving its core subscriber business.

Closely following the launch of MusicNet on AOL, Communicator becomes another subscriber-only service designed to promote AOL membership. Communicator is only available for download using the AOL client and requires an unlimited AOL account in order to fully utilize its features.

Tailored for heavy users of e-mail and instant messaging, the Communicator package includes a standalone e-mail client featuring integrated address book and an ad-free version of AIM. Communicator Mail supports retrieving messages from any ISP, but only after entering an AOL account. Message filtering is included, along with automatic spam filtering that learns over time.

Instant Messenger for AOL Communicator supports both AIM and ICQ accounts, but messaging across networks is not possible. As reported by BetaNews last October, AOL was previously testing interoperability between its two IM networks.

In order to build Communicator, AOL took advantage of the Gecko platform developed for Mozilla. Communicator uses the Gecko engine and sports an XUL user interface, although it was developed in-house according to AOL and its source code will not be released.

AOL has posted a Flash demonstration of Communicator and a PDF help file outlining the product's features. The download is only available via AOL keyword: AOL Communicator Preview Release.

In addition to Communicator, AOL is actively working on a new version of AOL Media Player that will function independent of the AOL client software. AMP may serve to replace RealNetworks' RealPlayer, which is transparently installed with the AOL client.

AOL was initially looking into building the next version of AMP using Wasabi, the framework designed by the company's Nullsoft group for Winamp3. But sources say AOL has decided to write AMP from the ground up, showcasing the fragmented nature of the company. As with the current embedded client however, AMP will still likely take advantage of Winamp technology.

Communicator and AOL Media Player are just the first steps at offering added incentives for AOL subscribers. Sources tell BetaNews that AOL has a handful of projects in the works, although many may never see the light of day.

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