Only AOL’s features, sites and services are free, not the Internet connections that once were its bread and butter. AOL had been losing members at a staggering rate; 300,000 people a month were canceling their AOL accounts as they switched to high-speed Internet from their cable and phone companies. AOL now has fewer than 18 million members, down from 35 million in 2002.
So AOL decided to get out of the Internet service-provider game, a dead-end business for a company that does not actually own the wires running to your home.
How, then, does AOL expect to make money?
First, abandoning its efforts to sign up subscribers will save hundreds of millions of dollars a year right off the bat.
Since it went free, AOL has lost 2.5 million paying subscribers – but gained 3 million free members. That’s more people looking at the ads on its site, which AOL figures will attract even more advertisers.
All right, so much for AOL’s interests. What’s in it for you?
Truth is, AOL looks a lot like Yahoo these days: It’s a portal to e-mail, chat rooms, news, classifieds, personal ads and discussion areas. There’s a Flickr- type photo sharing service, a Google video-type thing, and so on. There’s also a Google-esque search service that’s powered by Google itself.
Most of AOL’s goodies are available from any Web browser at www.aol.com. In other words, you don’t need to sign up for anything, and you don’t need the old AOL software, though it is still available if you want it.
But even in its free version, AOL is not for everyone. AOL’s “sanitized for your protection” approach still doesn’t appeal to the technically proficient.
They should reverse their model entirely, and pay us to browse through their ad-infested crud, sniffed a member of Digg.com, the techie news service (except the last word wasn’t “crud”).
Take this simple test: Do you own a domain name, subscribe to RSS feeds or know what “FWIW” stands for? If so, you’ll probably find AOL too mass- market for your tastes.
Still, a few AOL goodies, once reserved for paying members, are especially attractive now. For example:
Parental controls: AOL remains one of the most effective front doors to the Internet for households with children. You can specify which Web pages and chat or e-mail partners are off-limits, or let AOL do the blocking for you. You can limit your child’s time online, by quantity or times of day. AOL can send you activity reports about your offspring by e-mail. AOL even adjusts the screen design and features according to your child’s age.
XM radio: AOL offers a couple hundred free Internet radio stations at aolradio.com – nothing exclusive there. But 20 of them are commercial- free music channels from XM Satellite Radio. The audio and programming quality are very high; the 20 free channels include some of XM’s best.
OpenRide: If you have broadband, you’re encouraged to download a new AOL front-end program called OpenRide (Windows XP only). Unlike the old software, which cluttered your screen with windows, OpenRide offers all of AOL in a single window.
It’s divided into quadrants, dedicated to the Web, chat, video and audio, and e-mail. You can drag the intersection of the panes to resize all four panes at once, or click inside a pane to make it fill most of your window. The other three shrink down to little tabs.
The geek intelligentsia spit upon OpenRide, too, partly because of the banner ad across the window. For example, OpenRide doesn’t offer RSS news feeds.
But the four-pane approach really works. That, and OpenRide’s tabbed browser design, keep novices from getting lost on the Internet.
Online backup: All free AOL account holders get five gigabytes of free online storage for backing up data, transferring big files to other people, and so on. Windows users even get a free backup program that automatically copies selected folders to this virtual hard drive on a schedule. The software is clean, easy and convenient.
Antivirus software: AOL’s free security suite for Windows offers real- time virus protection and virus scanning. The suite also includes protection against spyware, pop-up windows, phishing scams and spam. Commercial security suites cost $50 or $70 a year. So if you don’t mind seeing a banner ad in your virus software, this is a deal.
A custom e-mail address: AOL lets you choose an address ending in @aol.com or anything else you want, as long as it’s available. Then you can set up other addresses with the same suffix for friends or family.
There aren’t many advantages to signing up for a free AOL account – as opposed to just using its features anonymously – but the AOL or custom e-mail address is one of them. The others include unlimited online photo storage and the option to use the AOL client software or OpenRide.
AOL still sells subscriptions for $10 or $26 a month. Such memberships grant you dial-up access, 50 more XM radio stations, unlimited e-mail storage versus 2 gigabytes for freeloaders, a 50- gig Xdrive, identity-theft and PC-malfunction insurance, and more.
But even the free AOL has a lot to offer. If you’re a parent or a technophobe, AOL is still one of the easiest, safest Internet on-ramps. And even if you’re an experienced Netizen, you should help yourself to the free antivirus software, or at least a custom e-mail address and a few satellite radio channels to listen to as you work. AOL’s video search, meanwhile, is one of the Web’s best; it finds video clips from all over the Web, including YouTube.
Fuente: International Herald Tribune, David Pogue