Will 'Streamliner' Usher In a Free AOL?

If the speculation is correct, AOL is on the verge of finally letting go of its subscriber revenues and embracing the openness of the Internet by offering its services free to all users. To aid this strategic shift, the company is developing a new software client it has code-named "Streamliner."

During its heyday as the world's largest Internet service provider counting close to 40 million users, AOL released new versions of its software for members like clockwork, ratcheting up the version number and appending new features each year.

But as its dial-up business fades away, AOL has remained unsure of how it can reach consumers on the open Web. In addition, a painful merger with Time Warner and a slew of accounting problems that saw the departure of a number of high-ranking executives left a cloud over AOL's future. Shareholders even called for a sale of the struggling ISP.

The result has been a failure by AOL to answer a key question and commit to transitioning its business to advertising: Should the company abandon its software altogether and take a browser-based approach like Google and Microsoft, or keep an all-in-one client that leverages AOL's existing technology?

Such indecisiveness has simply stagnated improvements to the company's core software and further exacerbated the growing tide of customer defections. The last major AOL Client upgrade, version 9.0, came in July 2003, with a minor update bolstering security in November 2004. However, that isn't to say AOL has been resting on its laurels.

Over the last three years, AOL has embarked on a number of ambitious projects to keep users under the company's umbrella of services even as they migrate off dial-up onto cable and DSL broadband. AOL Communicator was the first fruits of this labor, arriving in August 2003 after two and a half years in development.

AOL Communicator combined an e-mail client, address book and instant messaging functionality into a unified suite. It was marketed as an alternative for more advanced AOL members who were heavy users of AIM and e-mail. But despite early hype, the product quickly fell by the wayside.

Communicator was set to be replaced by "Fanfare," which surfaced in 2004 and added AOL Media Player, Spyware Protection and AOL Calendar into the Communicator code base. Fanfare was eventually scrapped as well, but AOL continued its efforts to build an attractive package for broadband users, an initiative it called "Copland."

During this time, AOL was also busy tearing down its walled garden on the Web, turning AOL.com into an actual content destination for the masses and rolling out a number of services targeted at general consumers, from video to webmail. Netscape.com was even recently relaunched as a next-generation social news site à la Digg.

Last year saw the beta release of AOL Suite, which combined AOL Explorer, Mail and AIM Triton with a navigation bar that provided instant access to AOL services such as travel and keywords. The company had high hopes for AOL Suite, touting it as next-generation software for subscribers. However, like its predecessors, development on AOL Suite halted in March.

AOL's original plan was to compete with Google and Microsoft on the open Web while also doing its best to retain a customer base that had become increasingly computer literate. AOL Suite was intended to help the latter, joined by deals with broadband cable and DSL providers to bundle AOL service with connectivity.

Now, it seems AOL has all but given up on its monthly fees, and "Streamliner" could serve to ease the transition without entirely abandoning the company's software roots.

Streamliner builds upon the feedback and research from AOL Suite and Fanfare, even utilizing the same application code, but takes on a new user interface. The software is split into four quadrants: AOL Mail, AIM instant messaging, the AOL Explorer browser, and a media center. Each can be shifted around and maximized within the application's Window.

The version of AOL Mail in Streamliner supports not only the company's own inboxes, but also accounts from other providers. The media center links up to the e-mail and IM applications, offering a single place to view digital pictures, video and music. Additional features are also in the works, such as integration with AOL's upcoming Total Care PC protection solution.

The big difference between Streamliner and AOL Suite, however, is that AOL plans to make the product available to a wide audience -- not just subscribers. Beta 1 of Streamliner is currently available only to AOL members running Windows XP with a broadband connection, but testing will be expanded as it progresses. No sign-in is required to use the software.

Still, it's unclear at this point whether Streamliner will, in fact, play a central role in a new AOL, or prove to be yet another example of the company simply dipping its proverbial toes into the open waters of the Internet.

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