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New software directs members to AOL home page

The newly released AOL 6.0 promises to be the most comprehensive version yet, but America Online seems to have nixed one feature from its Web browser: a home page button.

America Online's newly released AOL 6.0 promises to be the most comprehensive version yet, but the company seems to have nixed one feature from its Web browser: a home page button.

That means AOL subscribers cannot set their own default home pages when connecting to the Internet through the online service. Instead, members will begin surfing on AOL's Web page by default.

While AOL 6.0 users can still connect directly from the browser to different Internet sites, doing so requires a more cumbersome process than in previous versions of the software.

In the previous version of its proprietary service, AOL 5.0, members were easily able to change the default home page address in the service's browser. Although AOL.com automatically appeared when members launched their AOL Web browser, members could set a different default home page and visit it by clicking the "home" icon.

AOL has the largest population of Internet users. The company hit 25 million paid subscribers to its online service this week.

AOL's Web properties attract the largest number of visitors, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, largely because members automatically go to its Web page when they open an AOL Web browser. The company offers subscribers custom versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser for Web surfing. Other versions of IE, and most other Web browsers, include home page buttons.

According to AOL, removing the home page icon was a way to make the service simpler for subscribers without limiting their preferences.

"What we did was we looked at the toolbar as a whole, and in that redesign, in that streamlining, we moved some things around," said Jeff Kimball, executive director at AOL. "And yes, it's not there."

Kimball added that through group testing, AOL discovered that members considered AOL's customary Welcome Screen as their home page. He added that members also wanted one-click access to any Web page and pointed out that AOL members can add icons to their toolbars that link directly to a Web site or an area in the online service.

When an AOL member visits a Web site, a heart icon appears in the upper right-hand corner of the page bar. That member can then drag the heart into the AOL toolbar, choose an icon, and label the link. Then, whenever that person clicks on the link, it goes directly to the site.

Although AOL views the move as a cosmetic tweak, critics are raising warning flags. As AOL inches toward closing its merger with Time Warner, competitors, legislators and regulators are voicing concerns that the combined company could unfairly use its power to wedge out rivals.

"This is an outrageous business tactic that goes to the heart of our concern about how AOL Time Warner will be a digital monopoly," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education. "AOL and Time Warner want to become the new gatekeepers of the digital age, and we have to resist that."

Most of Chester's criticisms have centered on the combined company's control of cable systems. He believes the combination would create a disadvantage to content providers and rival Internet service providers. AOL Time Warner will control a vast array of content brands, such as CNN and Time Inc., while owning the nation's second-largest cable network.

Walt Disney, one of the most vocal opponents of the merger, has labeled AOL You've got
Time Warner a "walled garden," alleging it requires content partners such as Disney to disable links leading visitors out of the online service. AOL executives have denied Disney's allegations.

Disney on Wednesday released a filing to the Federal Communications Commission, one of the regulatory bodies set to rule on the AOL Time Warner merger, that said the combined company would have the ability to discriminate against content providers looking for carriage on the company's future interactive TV systems.

AOL also has come under criticism for requiring content partners to stop serving ads from competing ISPs on its service.

David E. Allen, an AOL 6.0 user, said in an email to CNET News.com that the new software puts limits on his choices as an Internet consumer.

"In my opinion, this is a very unfair method which AOL is using to drive traffic to their already popular www.AOL.COM site," Allen wrote. "Customers should not be forced to only have www.AOL.COM as their default browser home page."

But AOL's Kimball maintains that the new interface resulted from member feedback that showed AOL subscribers wanted fewer complications when using the service.

"Our members are pleased with our interface," he said. "It's something that came out of our research and out of our dialogue with our members."