- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

From combined dispatches

AOL has created a unit focused on protecting user privacy to prevent the additional release of consumer data by accident.

General Counsel Randall Boe will head the effort as executive vice president, the Sterling, Va., Internet service provider said yesterday. He will be replaced as general counsel by Ira Parker, who held that position at Polaroid.

AOL inadvertently posted search data from 658,000 of its users on the Web in August, sparking outrage from consumer-protection groups and leading to the departure of Maureen Govern, the company’s chief technology officer. In response, AOL set up a task force to look into how it could improve its privacy practices.

Mr. Boe will report to AOL Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis, who is heading the task force and plans to step down from his day-to-day role at AOL at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, AOL is getting a makeover today, its first since announcing it would make more of its services available free of charge in the chase for online advertising dollars.

With today’s introduction of OpenRide — the name reflecting AOL’s shift away from its traditional closed-door approach of charging for services and features — the company is hoping to keep broadband multitaskers glued to its key free offerings through an all-in-one program.

Unlike traditional Web browsers on which users perform one task at a time, OpenRide splits the main window into four panes — for e-mail, instant messaging, video and general Web browsing. It also has a prominent search box up top, tied to AOL’s search engine.

The panes automatically resize depending on what a user is doing, while giving users a glance of all the main tasks.

Unlike previous versions of AOL’s all-in-one software, users won’t have to sign in until they need to access a specific service, such as e-mail.

“You can get right to the content,” said Joel Davidson, executive vice president for access products and technology. “You don’t have to go through any wall.”

Mr. Davidson said AOL is counting on drawing former subscribers who have gone to rival services from Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. because they didn’t want to pay monthly fees of as much as $26. He acknowledged OpenRide might not appeal to “high-end geeky Web users” accustomed to mixing and matching software.

David Card, a JupiterResearch senior analyst, said AOL may have a tough time explaining to most people why they would need an integrated experience.

“It demos well, but I’m not sure what the demand for that kind of thing would be,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how they will market it.”

In the past two years, AOL has been making its news articles, music videos and other services available free to drive traffic to ad-supported Web sites to offset declines in subscription revenues. The Time Warner Inc. unit accelerated that shift in August when it gave away AOL.com e-mail accounts and software once reserved for paying customers.

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