AOL Takes on iGoogle
In addition to its powerful search engine, much of the appeal of Google to many users comes from its ability to be heavily customized. The default Google homepage is an exercise in minimalism, with its sparse white page, basic search box, and the page's 28-word limit. But with a free Google user account, you can make Google's iGoogle your one-stop destination for just about any online push and fetch information your heart desires via news feeds and third-party Google Gadgets.
In the vein of imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, AOL is taking a few pages out of Google's book and is not only making AOL.com more user-customizable, but AOL is also opening up AOL.com to third-party providers:
"Over the next eight weeks, AOL.com will launch new tools and features to further personalize the experience, opening AOL.com up to third party content and services for the first time. Upcoming additions to AOL.com include a "keyhole" view of their social networks that will allow consumers to manage all their social networking feeds from one location, a customizable RSS feed reader and, the ability to add a link to any web page directly to the main navigation bar, among other enhancements."
AOL's first step toward the democratization of AOL.com comes with the ability to preview your AOL, Yahoo!, and Gmail accounts directly from a user's customized AOL.com homepage:
"The Mail Preview Panels give users a quick look at their AOL, Gmail and Yahoo! accounts, so users get mail counts for mail and they can see new messages as they arrive. By clicking on an individual message users can navigate directly to it. AOL has also provided a link for each mail provider to launch a window to compose a message with just one click."
AOL's Sanjay Nayar reports in the AOL blog, however, that HotMail access is merely just a link to the HotMail site, as "Microsoft does not provide us the ability for you to access your account via AOL.com. But we are working with them closely so if and when they do offer it, we will integrate it."
For the Gmail and Yahoo! Mail Preview, clicking on a preview of a message will take you to the actual message on the respective provider's site. You cannot delete Gmail or Yahoo! messages from AOL Mail Preview. You don't need to have an AOL e-mail address or even sign into AOL to use the Mail Preview feature. If you have multiple Gmail or Yahoo! e-mail addresses, you can only preview the e-mails for one account per provider. Nayar reports, however, that AOL is "looking into adding the ability to check multiple email accounts." Nayar also invites users to supply feedback if there are other e-mail providers users would like to see added.
As AOL.com's customizations and third-party apps start to roll out over the next few weeks, it will be interesting see if AOL can find ways to differentiate itself from the iGoogle model. It will not just be about content choices either; it will also need to be easy for users to figure out how to use and how to organize content feeds and services in an intuitive manner without sending users into information overload. Also, AOL will need to provide a relatively simple-to-program-for API, or it won't find many providers willing to step up to the plate. In fact, even if AOL is still a major online player, some content and service providers may balk at the prospect of having to code for yet another open API.