After Four Years, AOL 9.1 Enters Beta

After a four year hiatus, AOL has restarted development of its client software, seemingly to appease those customers who have moved onto broadband, but are comfortable with the AOL interface. AOL 9.1 entered beta testing Tuesday, and is available for download.

Although it's only a notch above AOL 9.0, which was released in July 2003, the update brings a number of major changes to the company's software that once dominated an industry. The majority relate to AOL's shift from Internet service provider to Web portal and its newfound reliance on advertising.

Most notably, the AOL client no longer requires a login for broadband users (dial-up subscribers will still need an account to connect). Instead, the software simply functions as a window to AOL's growing number of Web properties. AOL has also attempted to reduce bloat by introducing a "Customized" and "Express" option.

E-mail in AOL 9.1 has also been revamped in order to match current industry standards, AOL says. For example, the company has introduced the "Inbox" and unlimited message storage. Previously, AOL simply had tabs for "New" and "Old" mail. RSS feed support has additionally been added.

Although AOL has let its 9.0 client age for so long, the company has made minor updates over the years. In November 2004, AOL released 9.0 "Security Edition" which bundled a firewall, antivirus software and a pop-up blocker. AOL 9.0 was also updated for Windows Vista earlier this year.

Now, with its transition away from the dial-up business complete and the AOL.com portal its central focus, AOL will likely use version 9.1 to retain those older customers who have become accustomed to the company's offerings. And in turn, AOL can spend its development resources on a single area, rather than continuing to update the client interface as well.

Whether or not customers will bite remains to be seen, however; Microsoft took a similar approach with MSN Explorer, which was largely phased out as customers migrated to newer Web browsers. But the alternative -- dropping AOL client users altogether -- wouldn't prove helpful to AOL's bottom line either.

AOL 9.1 runs on Windows 2000, XP and Vista. A final release date has not been set, but the beta is available for download now from beta.aol.com.

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