April 8, 2004 12:42 PM PDT

AOL tries to find its way on the Web

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America Online's walled garden may not be so closed off in the near future.

The Time Warner unit is slowly implementing new HTML-based Web-publishing technology that will allow it to offer more programming and content on the Web. That means that AOL's Web properties, including the Web sites of AOL, Netscape and Moviefone, as well as its Digital City guides, could begin offering more types of programming to nonmembers.

Already, areas such as personal finance and sports have helped convert nonmembers to members. Other areas, including movies and entertainment, have the same goal. Conversions could pave the way for AOL to solicit more third-party partners to create more programming for inside and outside AOL's fence.

"This enables us to extend programming outside of (AOL's) proprietary client environment," said Jim Bankoff, AOL's executive vice president of programming, referring to the new HTML publishing tool. "This system will allow us to do it more aggressively."

AOL has tried many times in its history to turn some of its sites into broader Web portals, like Yahoo and MSN. The company tried to refurbish Netscape's home page into a portal that featured Time Warner's magazine and entertainment content. It has also taken some steps with AOL.com, but the company largely has maintained the site as a way for subscribers to access their e-mail and calendar data when away from their main PCs.

Bankoff declined to comment on whether the new publishing tool foreshadows a rekindling of AOL's portal ambitions. He added that going with HTML would give AOL "more flexibility to evaluate its options."

The first noticeable shift in this strategy will be the offering of more content samples, which the company hopes will lure people into subscribing. This past weekend, AOL offered clips from a concert by pop star Usher, which previously had been streamed live only to AOL members.

Content has become a cornerstone of AOL's attempts to revive a decaying business. The company's core dial-up user base dropped by more than 2 million subscribers in 2003, largely because of defections to broadband services and cheaper dial-up options. In response, AOL is trying to sell a premium broadband version of its service that comes without Internet access and costs $14.95 a month. Key to this will be broadband programming through video streams and online radio.

Meanwhile, the company has launched a discount dial-up Internet service provider under the Netscape moniker. Netscape costs $9.95 a month, much less than AOL's $23.90, but the service comes with fewer bells and whistles.

 

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