In recent months, AOL has been, code-named Tahiti, for subscribers of its recently introduced AOL 9.0 Optimized. Among other things, Tahiti lets beta testers dial in directly to the Net without launching AOL's content-heavy program and still gives them access to some of the bells and whistles of the premium service, such as animated instant-messaging icons and newly added security and privacy controls.
Anti-spyware software is among the features that will be part of the final free upgrade, which is expected early next year, according to AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley.
"It's going to help members identify, remove and protect their PCs from surveillance and advertising spyware," said Bentley, who declined to comment further on how the software will work. Bentley would not comment on a final launch date for Tahiti, either, or talk about its other characteristics while it's still in test phase.
AOL's addition of anti-spyware software is significant, because it signals a mainstream awareness of the mounting threat spyware poses to Web surfers and corporations. In the last three years, the number of spyware programs circulating on the Net has shot up 13-fold, according to security software company PestPatrol.
Though definitions of spyware vary, it's generally thought of as software installed surreptitiously on a PC that monitors a user's browsing habits or collects valuable personal information and then sends that data to third parties. Spyware's more common cousin, "adware," is similar but is routinely installed along with free software such as digital video viewers or file-swapping programs. Some adware programs monitor users' surfing habits and report back aggregate data to their parent companies; others simply serve up ads displayed inside the software program.
More dangerous is "remote surveillance" software, which disguises itself on a computer and reports back to whoever installed it every keystroke made on that PC.
Most spyware protection software, such as Spybot Search & Destroy, is designed to help Web surfers detect and uninstall all variations of the software from their PCs. According to AOL's Bentley, AOL's spyware protection will likely do the same. More importantly, it will give AOL's roughly 25 million Internet subscribers a free service to root out such programs at the ISP level.
Security experts say AOL could be helping itself by arming subscribers with spyware protection.
"As a market differentiator, AOL seems to want to do more in security than they have in the past. And this could help them cut down on their tech support issues," according to Richard Smith, a well-known privacy and security consultant.
"By cutting back on the amount of hand-holding they have to do with subscribers, they may be trying to protect themselves," Smith said.
In addition, by helping Web surfers block software often used to deliver pop-up advertisements, AOL could help improve advertising sales. If more Internet service providers offer PC users a way to avoid spyware and adware, advertisers that use adware as a method to reach Web surfers could be forced to go elsewhere.
Offering anti-spyware will be yet another way for AOL to appeal to both broadband and dial-up subscribers at a time when its customer levels are comparatively low.
The company's dial-up subscriber base has declined by nearly 2 million subscribers over the past four financial quarters because of subscriber defection to broadband and the decline of promotional and free members. In the quarter ended Sept. 30, AOL reported a 688,000-member decline and a 33 percent drop in advertising revenue from the previous year.
AOL started testing Tahiti after itin July. Optimized includes Web page caching software, flashier graphics and new features for its e-mail and IM clients. It also emphasizes multimedia content such as streaming video and music clips as well as security features such as a firewall and virus protection.
AOL is also offering the new features as its main rival, Microsoft MSN, ramps up its service. The software giant is readying to release MSN Premium and MSN Plus early next year to appeal to new broadband subscribers with spam filters, antivirus capabilities, parental controls and other features.
AOL's Tahiti upgrade is not only for broadband subscribers. It's optimized for older machines that are connected to the Internet via dial-up so that subscribers with slower connections can use the spyware protection.
"Safety and security are a No. 1 concern for members," AOL's Bentley said. "AOL spyware protection is a clearly another indication of that."