America Online seems to be feeling pretty cocky these days - and why not? As the world's largest online service, AOL has more than 17 million members, according to Forrester Research. Meanwhile, Microsoft Network, its nearest competitor, has a mere 2 million.
But the proud new owner of Netscape Communications is hardly resting on its laurels. AOL will shortly begin shipping a new version of its online software and upgrade its network to deliver video clips and other enhanced content to broadband users. AOL also plans to allow Palm users to access some of its services. You may even be able to hook up from specially equipped pumps at service stations.
Despite its big plans, AOL faces challenges from such formidable competitors as AT&T, which is hobbling the online giant's efforts to offer high-speed Internet access to its many customers.
A peek at AOL 5
Though most new features of version 5 weren't ready for testing at press time, AOL disclosed several key additions to its online software for veteran AOLers and novices alike.
An improved search engine permits you to comb through America Online and the Web simultaneously - a first for AOL and a definite time-saver. Query results appear under three tabs in a browser window: the first tab shows AOL hits, the second shows Web hits, and the third lists other resources (such as online yellow pages) that you can search for more information. Unfortunately, the search screen does not include links to other popular Web search engines - for instance, Google and AltaVista - that might scare up additional (and in some cases more relevant) hits.
Version 5 will also feature My Calendar, a personal or group scheduler that AOL users can access from work, home, or wherever there's a PC with AOL on it. Since your scheduling information will reside on AOL's server rather than on your PC's hard drive, you'll be able to read and update your calendar from various locations.
The group-scheduling feature, another advance, lets you authorise other AOL members to read or post changes to your calendar. For instance, you might permit staff or clients to schedule meetings for you.
One drawback: My Calendar won't work unless your PC has AOL software loaded on it - a browser alone won't do. Since many corporate networks don't allow AOL use, many AOL subscribers won't be able to view their schedules from work. However, AOL promises to fix that problem later this year. Eventually, even nonmembers will be able to access members' schedules.
No scanner required
A new feature of You've Got Pictures will make it easier to import and organise photographs online. Here's how it's expected to work: when you drop off a roll of film at your neighbourhood photo developer, you'll simply check the America Online box on the film envelope; within 48 hours, you'll be able to view your photographs in an AOL "album" online. You can then e-mail images to friends and family, or permit other AOL members to view your album. (You'll still pick up your prints from the developer yourself.)Many of the major photo processing companies, including Rite-Aid, Target, and Albertsons, will support You've Got Pictures, according to AOL. The film developers will charge a small fee, typically $US6, for the scanning service. AOL plans to phase in the service by the end of the year.
Version 5 offers other enhancements, too. You can retrieve deleted e-mail for up to 24 hours - a long-overdue feature. The enhanced Address Book will be server based, so you can access it from different PCs. AOL also revamped the Welcome Screen.
AOL in your hand
Users of 3Com's Palm handhelds will appreciate a new version of the software that lets them send and receive AOL Mail. Later this year, Palm VII units will ship with AOL Mail preinstalled; an AOL CD with the necessary software will accompany Palm III and V units. But even so, Palm users won't be able to access all AOL features from their PDAs. AOL plans to give cell phone users similar capabilities. Finally, AOL intends to let customers access e-mail, road maps and other information via touch-screens installed on pumps at service stations.
When it comes to giving customers high-speed Internet access, America Online is struggling. AT&T, owner of cable TV giant TCI, has prevented AOL and other ISPs from offering Net access via its extensive cable network so far. (Ma Bell wants that lucrative business for itself.) Still, many analysts believe the combination of ISP-sponsored court challenges, federal legislation, local government rulings, and market forces may ultimately force AT&T to open its network.
But AOL isn't just waiting around in the meantime. It recently inked agreements for high-speed DSL Internet access with regional telephone companies, including Ameritech, Bell Atlantic, GTE, and SBC Communications.
As a result, for instance, Ameritech and SBC subscribers in selected states will soon be able to receive high-speed AOL for an extra $20 per month. In addition, last June AOL invested $1.5 billion in Hughes Electronics, thereby ensuring delivery of a service called AOL TV via Hughes' DirecPC satellite service. AOL and Hughes are also developing a two-way satellite service for Internet access. (DirecPC is download only; users upload data via a modem connection.)Regardless of the outcome of these byzantine boardroom machinations, America Online users are sure to end up sitting pretty. Subsequent versions of AOL will continue to offer plenty of worthwhile enhancements. Although the company must still dismantle some roadblocks obstructing its ability to offer high-speed Internet access, it is taking aggressive action to overcome those problems. And as an industry leader, AOL's moves raise the ante in the online world and should force competing ISPs to offer similar services - which is certainly good news for everyone.