AOL 9 Optimized Launches

America Online has introduced AOL 9 optimized; a broadband version of the client software formerly code-named Blue Hawaii. Today’s announcement also gave legs to the "Members First" download campaign. Starting Friday, August 1st, subscribers using the Windows 2000 or XP operating system will get an exclusive first look at the code before the product’s general release to stores and other marketing outlets.

Since BetaNews first reported on the 9.0 beta in May, there have been a plethora of changes introduced to both the standard and broadband flavors of the client from a tight-lipped AOL.

Based upon the feedback of customers and over enrolled 150,000 testers, AOL is decking out both versions with lavish cosmetic changes. New "Prescott Skins," an attribute allowing users to select themes to change the appearance of the AOL client, will surface, along with a new customizable toolbar. Additionally, Email will function more like a traditional stand-alone application with a preview pane, integrated filing cabinet, and resizable mail columns.

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Address Cards allow customers to share changes to telephone numbers, addresses or personal or work information with friends, family and other contacts.

As previously reported, AOL's Embedded Media Player, code-named Dalai Llama,
has been overhauled for Blue Hawaii. Real and QuickTime formats are now
supported, with Nullsoft Video (NSV) support scheduled for future beta
builds.

Although QuickTime was installed in Blue Hawaii by default, Real says AOL
will continue to ship with RealPlayer, but not the company's newer RealOne
client. "RealPlayer is shipped as part of AOL 9.0 beta," "There is a smart installer that first checks to see if the consumer has a newer version of the player on their machine - if so it doesn't install our player because there is no need, if not it does install," a Real spokesperson told BetaNews.

In a move resembling rival MSN, VA based America Online is converging most of its attention on its broadband services. Customers, who can, "bring their own broadband," will have a richer online experience at their fingertips in comparison to dial-up.

Family Ties

Families will benefit from a mix of security protections. The Web Unlock tool for parents - an enhancement to existing parental controls - can filter out access to offensive Websites and Internet content.

Smarter spam filtering paired with virus scanning for email attachments is also included into the security mix. Earlier this week, a McAfee spokesperson told BetaNews that AOL has chosen its firewall services to further protect customers.

Parents can enroll their teenagers into the AOL Cash Card program, an arrangement that offers a parent-controlled prepaid debit card from VISA International. Aside from the convenience allowances can now be a digital mentor on the merits of money management.

The youth push is also slated to commence new customized versions of the AOL service for kids and teens, demonstrating the fact that the 9.0 milestone has left room for extensive welcome screen personalization. Graced with the name "My AOL QuickView," welcome screens can be tailored to each user, or even appear as the customer’s default facade for each visit to AOL.com.

For those of us who are on the go, a featured dubbed "Shared Family Calendars" can help people stay connected. Family and friends who choose to "subscribe" to a calendar will receive automated updates on events that can be synched to Palm and Pocket PC PDA’s. There is also said to be off-line updating.

A Flurry of Features

New AOL TopSpeed Web acceleration technology revs up connection speeds for both high speed and dial-up users. If a connection is dropped or interrupted, TopSpeed will automatically resume the session.

Other features include 3D "SuperBuddy" Icons for AOL's Instant Messenger service. Further bolstering AOL's IM services, a new addition called IM Picture Sharing permits subscribers to instantly share digital images through AIM or AOL Mail services – making the phrase you've got pictures more contemporary in the face of real time communications. As with past implementations of photo-sharing, users have one centralized location to store pictures.

New storage options increase maximum email storage capacity to 20 megabytes per Screen Name – a total of 140 over all.

Saving the best for last, AOL 9 has dived headlong into the blogging craze. New to 9.0, AOL Journals is the caretaker for member photos, thoughts, or even travelogues. AOL Journals is integrated with the new Picture Finder feature for blanketing text entries with individual photos and albums.

Running the Broadband Gauntlet

This release of AOL for Broadband comes on the heels of last week’s revelation that AOL has hemorrhaged 846,000 narrowband subscribers in the past quarter. Microsoft's MSN has also experienced similar losses to its dial-up user base; as both companies have long been thought of as traditional old-horse ISPs.

To counter this trend, AOL for Broadband offers customers added incentives such as on-demand and exclusive programming from the Time Warner brand treasure chest. Broadband subscribers have VIP access to original news, sports, entertainment, and music content. For music lovers, over 175 channels are available through [email protected], and special recording sessions are accessible through [email protected]

Showcasing its spotlight on Broadband services, executive Kevin Conroy was recently tapped as the new COO of AOL for Broadband.

Summing up the release, Jon Miller, AOL's Chairman and CEO, said: "Our members told us exactly what they want in their AOL service and AOL 9.0 Optimized was built in response. No matter how members and their families connect to the AOL service - whether by dial-up or by adding the AOL for Broadband service to a basic high-speed connection - this upgrade will allow each person to create the online world that they want."

MSN 9 is expected for a fall release to bring MSN up to parity with AOL's version number. Both companies offer bring your own broadband (BYOB) for a reduced rate in comparison to their dial-up access.

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