AOL's 'walled garden' admits Yahoo, Gmail, and (sort of) Hotmail

As a first step toward serving as an Internet "launchpad," AOL now lets users view Yahoo Mail, Gmail, and Hotmail from AOL.com. Then, over the next two months, the company intends to "open up" to additional third-party content and services.

AOL.com is finally letting down the walls of its proverbial "garden" a bit, moving more in the direction of an Internet portal or starting point -- first by giving access to external e-mail services, and next with links to outside social networks and other non-AOL content.

AOL's new e-mail "aggregation" service, which is already up, lets subscribers to AOL's free and paid mail services preview and access mail from Yahoo, Google's Gmail, and Microsoft's Hotmail from AOL.com.

"We need to embrace the reality that you visit other sites and become more of a launch pad to your other online experiences," admitted AOL's Sanjay Nayar in a blog post yesterday. "We realize that AOL.com is not the only Web site that you use and that you may, like many of us, have multiple e-mail accounts with different providers. Why shouldn't you be able to preview all your e-mail in one place?"

The links to Yahoo Mail and Gmail are self-evident on the home page. There isn't a link to Hotmail, although Hotmail can be viewed.

The newly redesigned front page of AOL.com on 9/10/2008, complete with links to mail other than AOL's

The newly redesigned front page of AOL.com on 9/10/2008, complete with links to mail other than AOL's

"Microsoft does not provide us the ability for you to access your account via AOL.com," Nayar said. "If you want to access the Hotmail preview panel, you'll have to swap it out with one of the ones already there by clicking on the arrow in the corner. Keeping that in mind, we've done what we can for our Hotmail users and provided a link to Hotmail. Hopefully that will make it a little easier to access your account from AOL.com. If interested, feel free to send Microsoft some feedback to let them know you'd like to be able to do this on AOL."

Users can also replace the e-mail previews with other options such as eBay, TMZ, Music, and Radio, according to Nayar.

Some of those options, though, link to other AOL properties, such as TMZ. Likewise, a new "extended navigation bar" will also link to other AOL entities -- including TMZ, StyleList, and ParentDish, for example.

But over the next eight weeks, AOL.com will "[open] up to third-party content and services for the first time," according to a statement released by the company this week. Forthcoming additions will include a "keyhole" view for managing multiple social networking feeds from a single location, a customizable RSS feed reader, and "the ability to link to any Web page."

Meanwhile, Yahoo -- in second place to Google in the Internet search engine/ad race, but ahead of Microsoft and AOL -- has also been making more of a portal play -- not through its mail service, but through Yahoo-owned "starting points" such as Buzz and Shine.

"Our goal is to grow visits to key Yahoo starting points and properties, where users enter the Internet, by 15% per year over the next several years," said Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang, in a letter to shareholders last February.

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