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AOL Building Out IM as Community Platform April 28, 2006

Posted by David Card in Media.
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The company that invented online community is scrambling to avoid losing it, now that it’s been re-named social networking. AIM Pages are the new angle, but the magic ingredient may be AOL’s spin on widgets.

Yeah, yeah, I know. A million years ago last June, I said AOL might lead the masses to RSS. Hey, they don’t call me the AOL Apologist for nothing. Back then, the plan was to turn MyAOL into an RSS reciever. This time, it’s building out IM as a simple publishing tool, and connecting buddy list members with more than text messages.

Many of the new publishing and communications features will look familiar to users of Yahoo or MSN Messenger. (“Gleams”, anyone?) But at least to this analyst, AOL’s integration of communications, presence management and personal publishing looks a lot more graceful — and way easier to use — than the other big guys’. Or Google’s. And the vision thing is there.

But like I said, the best hook may be “snaggable” modules. AOL’s version of widgets (little applets that are essentially a user interface on top of an RSS feed) are AIM Page modules. But unlike Yahoo’s and Apple’s, they aren’t meant to live on your desktop. Like Microsoft Gadgets, the’re designed to be housed on a page. But they’re also meant to be super-subscribe-able, syndicate-able, even paste-able (Think YouTube or Flickr vis a vis MySpace). They’re very lightweight and rendered by browsers.

AOL will implement a lot of its own content and services as modules, and is showing modules from Amazon, Flickr, Netflix, and YouTube. AOL described “programming your own TV network” by creating some intros and outros, and snagging some show content from In2TV.

And AOL says it doesn’t want to compete so much with MySpace as let people publish to it. IM was the first social network, AOL reasons, but it was based on text messaging alone. Now it’s time to take that big existing network and use it for more.

Ultimately, re-packaging AOL as modules is nothing less than an effort to create a modern network that’s not dependent on a homepage, let alone a walled garden. This is truly visionary, especially coming from the company that still owns the biggest share of US users’ time spent online. (See Figure 1.) But subscribing and linking should also bring traffic back in. (See Figure 10 “deconstructing your Website”.) AOL claims AIM is already one of the top five traffic drivers for AOL.com, and one of the top three for its News, Music, Movies (Moviefone), and RED (teens) properties.

Yahoo and Microsoft already offer good contact list integration and simple publishing to personal pages from their IM products. Yahoo’s music playlist sharing is cool. But Yahoo’s trying too hard to jam the kitchen sink into Yahoo 360, making it all but unusable. And between Spaces, MSN, and Live, I can’t figure out what Microsoft’s doing with community.

AOL’s still got the only IM network that really matters. If it delivers on its vision, I might actually trade in Trillian.

PS AOL also houses under the umbrella of “AIM Connections” an aggressive set of new VOIP initiatives — including unlimited free inbound calls from real telephones, and slick call management software — but that’s for another post, or another analyst.

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