Year in Review: AOL Reinvents Itself

2005 was a critical year for America Online in which it attempted to shed its image as an un-hip ISP and re-brand itself as a leading Internet destination. The company also launched the first ever major overhaul to AIM and embraced blogs. But can AOL really bring back the cool?

January kicked off the first of many changes to AOL.com with a new search that combined its own editorial content and Google results. The new site set the stage for a complete company makeover that would take place throughout the year. Hints of an expansion to AOL Desktop Search also came to light as the year got underway.

As new services launched, others were put to rest. In late January, AOL pulled the plug on its Usenet newsgroups -- one of the oldest parts of the Internet that dates back to the 1980s, which has largely been replaced by blogs and e-mail.

AOL came out swinging in February with a number of product launches. A beta version of AOL Browser with integrated desktop search was opened to the public and ICQ 5 quietly emerged with voice calling features. AIM was updated with capabilities to sync with Microsoft Outlook.

AOL Music was forced into damage control mode after a DRM hole in Winamp enabled copying of protected audio files, but February also saw the official launch of AOL Local Search and the first inklings of AOL's intentions to open AIM as a platform for third parties.

Spring arrived with a number of new betas, including the Firefox based Netscape 8.0, which had been resurrected at the end of 2004. In March, AOL tested Pinpoint Travel, and unveiled plans to launch a free Web mail service to compete with Gmail.

Before the month was out, the company announced plans to enter the Internet telephony market with a paid VoIP service, which would launch within weeks.

But April was the month of music for AOL. The company partnered with XM to stream satellite radio channels to Radio@AOL listeners, the first deal of its kind. AOL also unveiled a beta of a new media player known as AMP, and began offering free music videos on its Web site.

BetaNews was given the first glimpse at AIM Triton in late April and AOL began to discuss its plans to make the ubiquitous instant messaging client the center of its new Web strategy. Initial reviews were positive, but wary of AOL changing its IM stalwart.

AOL joined the blogosphere in May with the launch of AIM Journals, which were open to all users. The company also made good on its promise and debuted AIM Mail, offering 2GB of storage. May saw the release of the second AIM Triton beta as well.

June would bring the biggest external change for AOL during the year: a complete makeover of AOL.com from corporate Web site to content portal complete with AOL services. The company also added video clips to its media search and removed storage restrictions on AIM Mail.

AOL continued its monthly updates of AIM Triton in June with Beta 3.

The month of July would prove a milestone in AOL's transition from ISP to Web destination. Live 8 concerts took place on July 2 and AOL streamed the event as it happened to homes around the world. The company blew away coverage from MTV and made clear that the Web as a medium can reach a mainstream audience.

July also brought AOL's first standalone e-mail client, a deal that tied together AIM and Plaxo, and the official launch of AOL Explorer -- the company's alternative to IE. In addition, AOL rolled out a beta RSS aggregator on AOL.com and legal MP3 downloads of certain Warner artists.

AOL kept the momentum going into August with the purchase of Xdrive and Wildseed. Mobile AOL services were launched for cell phones and the company gave the first look at its new AOL Suite, a single package comprised of AOL Mail, Explorer and AIM Triton.

AIM Triton started to get its legs in September with a public preview release, but rumors of talks between the company and Microsoft overshadowed the news. AOL also added a podcasting directory and detailed a future voice calling service it planned to integrate into Triton.

October was a slow month for releases, but AOL took another step into the mainstream by purchasing blog network Weblogs, Inc. The first AIM ad campaign was kicked off shortly thereafter to promote the coming release of Triton.

Discontinuing its AMP media player, AOL instead launched a Web based subscription music service in early November with the acquisition of MusicNow. The company additionally updated AOL Photos with AJAX capabilities and announced downloads of older TV shows, which would utilize P2P technology.

Slightly marring the final launch of AIM Triton in late November, AOL faced a public relations debacle after deciding to automatically add two AIM bots to the buddy lists of millions of users. AOL's main executive behind Triton also announced plans to leave the company in early December.

Sill, AOL kept going strong through the end of the year with a new Safety and Security Center and the addition of MTV content to its Video Search. The year ended on a high note with a $1 billion investment from Google along with an expanded strategic partnership.

It's going to be a long year ahead for America Online as it continues to rebuild its business from the ground up. Millions of subscribers will leave AOL, but the company must attempt to keep them using its free services once they are gone. AOL Suite and AIM will play a central role in this effort, and even without another Live 8, 2006 will be the year to watch AOL.

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