November 17, 2003 6:06 PM PST

AOL mulls toolbar service

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Time Warner's America Online division is considering creating a desktop application that lets people access popular Web services such as search, news and maps, the company confirmed Monday.

AOL has been e-mailing surveys to prospective customers to judge consumer response to such an idea, a company spokesman said. The e-mail contained a few questions to test reactions as well as a rudimentary image of the service.

The product, which has the working name "Netscape Navigator," looks like a compass with names of different services--such as "movie showtimes," "yellow pages," and "shopping"--encircling a Google Web search bar, according to an image Barron's Online posted. The product borrows its name from Netscape's well-known browser.

Sources close to AOL said no timetable has been set for Navigator's beta release and that the product remains at an early development stage.

Navigator is similar to products from Google and Yahoo. Both companies have toolbars that embed themselves into a Microsoft Internet Explorer browser page, allowing people to type in search terms or click to other services. The working version of Navigator will not reside in the browser, but rather float on the desktop and launch a default browser when someone clicks on a service link, the sources said.

The goal for these toolbars is to increase customer loyalty and to easily direct them to other areas on their network. Yahoo, Google and AOL all rely on people viewing advertisements and clicking on sponsored Web search results as a major revenue source.

News of the Navigator tests come as AOL tries to win back its customers, many of whom are defecting to broadband or to dial-up competitors. The company is developing a new version of its online service dubbed "Tahiti", which will enable people to dial into the Internet without launching AOL's content-heavy client.

AOL is also developing a Netscape-branded Internet service that will cost $9.95 a month, less than half of AOL's $23.90 monthly subscription fee.


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