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AOL moving to free portal

Mon, 06/20/2005 - 8:00pm
Verne Kopytoff

Copyright 2005 Scripps Howard, Inc.

Scripps Howard News Service

June 20, 2005, Monday 01:35 PM Eastern Time

San Francisco Chronicle

America Online is hoping that "free" is the remedy to its beleaguered Internet business.

Executives are planning to unveil an overhauled AOL.com Web portal that gives visitors free access to features that were previously available only to paid subscribers.

The strategy is a major shift for the once high-flying division of Time Warner, which had considered AOL's walled garden of online content a major selling point. But an erosion in the number of the Internet firm's dial-up subscribers has prompted executives to change course and directly challenge the kings of free Internet content, namely Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN and Google.

"This situation we find ourselves in - people say - is that the brand is declining and dial-up is falling," said Jim Riesenbach, a senior vice president at AOL. "But I think we're at a great point that we're really bullish about."

Starting Tuesday, a test version of the new portal will be accessible via a link at aol.com. A limited number of features will be available at first, with more added in the coming months.

AOL believes that creating a free portal will expand its audience beyond just subscribers. Online advertising will provide the revenue.

The free Web model has propelled Yahoo and Google to great financial success over the past few years. AOL, in contrast, has foundered.

AOL's membership has dropped from a peak of 26.7 million members in 2002 to 21.7 million at the end of the first quarter this year as subscribers switch to high-speed connections offered by other companies. AOL's dial-up service costs $23.90 monthly.

AOL doesn't have a broadband connection business. It offers only an interface for broadband on top of a connection provided by other companies.

In an effort to cater to broadband users, video and music will be emphasized on the new portal. The sources of content will be AOL's sister divisions at Time Warner and other media companies.

Visitors will be able to watch music videos, exclusive concerts and a Web- only reality show in which the participants compete for a recording contract. AOL's Singingfish multimedia search engine will be prominently featured.

Many of the bells and whistles will be based at AOL's Video Hub, which will focus on not only entertainment, but also news. Users will be able to choose the site as their AOL.com home page.

"We know that for broadband users, video is more important than ever," Riesenbach said.

Other home page options include a basic version, much like Yahoo's or MSN's. A My AOL page, where users can compile feeds from news sites and blogs, is expected to premiere in July.

Riesenbach explained that the goal is to make everything available on AOL's proprietary service also available on AOL.com. Some anomalies persist, however.

For example, AOL plans to offer 20 channels of FM-quality XM Satellite Radio stations at the free portal. On the proprietary service, subscribers will have access to 70 channels with CD-quality sound.

AOL's new portal helps solve a problem of uniting its disparate Web properties in one place. Although the division is best known for its proprietary service, it also owns such popular free Web sites as Moviefone and MapQuest.

Over the past year, AOL has quietly expanded its reach to the masses. It created the inStore shopping site and the Pinpoint travel search engine in addition to opening up its proprietary music page.

Riesenbach argued that the free portal strategy won't cause an even steeper decline in dial-up subscriptions. Internal studies show that members join for anti-spyware, parental controls and customer support, not exclusive content, he said.

Previously, AOL gave nonsubscribers little reason to visit its AOL.com portal. Other than a search box, the Web site is largely an advertisement for AOL services.

AOL members, on the other hand, could log in to the site to access many of AOL's proprietary features - particularly e-mail - while at work or traveling.

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