America Online Inc. late this week released a preview of its
latest AOL 6.0 upgraded software to members in select cities.
"It's a measured way for us to gear up for the launch," said
Marta Grutka, AOL spokeswoman, confirming the preview. Word of the
limited distribution first surfaced in a chatroom on www.newriots.com, an
Internet site for web developers.
Chatroom postings say users in the lucky geographic markets can
find preview versions of 6.0 by going to Keyword:Upgrade. However,
AOL's Grutka said the software upgrade is being offered via a
pop-up window to members in select cities.
The preview of AOL 6.0 -- which was touted earlier this year as
the centerpiece of its "AOL Anywhere" strategy -- comes at a
pivitol time for the nation's leading provider of Internet access.
Last spring, when the world caught a glipse of AOL 6.0, the company
projected its new version would be ready by late September. The
company has already been making noise about
voice-recognition/voice-activated Internet access through
investments like SpeechWorks International and Quack.com. And Wall
Street analysts already have accounted for subscription campaign in
their forecasting models for the December quarter.
The company now has a week before Internet World Fall
2000. That said, it's quite possible that Barry Schuler,
president of AOL's Interactive Services Group, will show Internet
World-goers a preview of the software when he gives his keynote
address on Wednesday, Oct. 25.
AOL declined to speculate on when the formal launch (along with
the customary multi-million-dollar marketing push) would be, except
to say the company is still anticipating a launch this fall.
Further guidance could also be giving on Wednesday, Oct. 18, when
AOL will report results for the fiscal first quarter.
So what does AOL 6.0 have under the hood? InternetNews.com spoke
to a beta tester who has been working closely with the company for
several years. He agreed to tell us what he thinks -- on condition
of anonymity. The beta tester said AOL 6.0 -- which comes as a 28.6
MB setup file -- features a new toolbar, HTML e-mail capability, an
improved address book, a Buddy List with graphics, a new Welcome
window, AOL Media Player, AOL Speaks (voice recognition), and a
whole lot of bugs.
"They fixed a lot of things that weren't broken," the beta
tester said. To be fair, it should be noted this is only one beta
tester of many and the reason AOL 6.0 is still in beta is because
AOL doesn't feel its ready to be published yet.
One of those things is the toolbar. The toolbar has been color
coded and quite a few new icons have been added. But that's not
"The whole toolbar is embedded with hard-coded advertisements,"
the beta tester said. "They used to call it 'Click and Go,' I call
it 'Click and Find,'" he said, adding that the addition of drop
down menus from the toolbar have made the toolbar layout sloppy and
confusing. "You're going to be forever hunting."
He added, "AOL is now saying that they're trying to design their
software to graduate people from 5.0 to the next level. They've
taken all this content and they've squished it into this little
space and they're saying here you go. Good luck."
AOL also promised HTML e-mail with the new version. But the beta
tester said that HTML is exactly what users will get -- an e-mail
sprinkled liberally with HTML code. The AOL 6.0 mail delivery
window is apparently built on a stripped down Microsoft Internet
Explorer browser window. The beta tester said a user who has
IE 5.0 enhancements -- like the "click" sound produced when Web
pages are launched -- will also hear those clicks when opening
e-mail in AOL 6.0.
"They took the component that makes Web pages possible and
completely rearranged it, badly, so they can do their HTML e-mail,"
the beta tester said.
On the other hand, the beta tester said the new address book is
superior to previous versions, except for the fact that it is no
longer saved to a user's hard drive. Instead it is saved directly
to AOL's servers. The idea behind this move is to allow a user to
sign on as a guest and still have access to the address book.
"Can we say privacy issues?" the beta tester asked. "So now AOL
has taken it upon themselves to save my address book on their
servers? It is bad enough my Buddy List is on their servers. I do
not care how many times AOL claims our privacy is their foremost
concern...I personally believe this is really part of their 'AOL
Anywhere' scheme. Now they will have all my Internet contacts to
send one of those "700 hours free" CDs to."
However, he noted, "This is pure speculation of course. I could
never prove such a thing."
As noted previously, the Buddy List has been enhanced with
graphics, although users will need a screen resolution of 600x800
or higher, the beta tester said. "Sure it looks okay...it's just
bulky and could have been designed smaller."
The beta tester was also disappointed with the AOL Media Player,
which plays WAV, MID and MP3 files. It is based on a stripped down
version of WinAmp, which AOL owns through its subsidiary
"The AOL Media Player gets the job done, but at a price," the
beta tester said. "It has always seemed to bog my system down." He
added that the sound quality is lacking and that it can't play
Finally, people who rush to download AOL 6.0 because they're
tired of typing and want to speak and have AOL Speaks type the
words for them will be disappointed. The software will only be
available through the AOL 6.0 CD. The beta tester we spoke to
couldn't test the software because he couldn't get it to work. He
said other beta testers he spoke to did get it running and it is
basically a branded version of Dragon Systems Inc.'s Naturally
Speaking voice recognition software. This begs the question: What
will current users of Naturally Speaking, many of whom bought the
software through AOL at $99.99 (it sells in most stores for $129)
think of the fact that AOL is giving away something for which they
had to pay?
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