Services & Software

AOL aims to revive CompuServe

America Online upgraded its subsidiary with new features, hoping to lure new members by leveraging existing services and technology.

America Online has upgraded its CompuServe subsidiary with new features, hoping to lure new members by leveraging existing AOL services and technology.

The new software offerings include an upgrade called CompuServe 4.0 and the availability of CompuServe Instant Messenger.

The new Instant Messenger client will be a CompuServe-branded service using AOL's popular technology. It will allow CompuServe users to communicate in both the proprietary and Web-only services.

Aimed at what the online service considers a more "adult" population, CompuServe 4.0 has a new look and feel that includes 20 content channels ranging from service information to news. The new software also hosts links to AOL's Digital City guides and a new navigation bar for services areas.

"It's a big step up from the 3.0 product," CompuServe chief operating officer Audrey Weil said of the upgrade.

While the current landscape of online services is dominated by the 12 million-member behemoth AOL, Weil further emphasized that the upgrade is targeted toward "time-constrained adults," which is an audience she says differs from that of parent AOL.

She added that the eventual goal is to develop an overall multibrand strategy on the Web that focuses on different audiences. As an example, Weil made a comparison to newspapers, where CompuServe is more like a New York Times with its specific reach, while AOL is more like USA Today with a more mainstream reader base.

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Despite touting the multiple audience strategy, what remains to be seen is whether a software relaunch can net new CompuServe members. Since being acquired by AOL, the service has suffered mass defections and slower-than expected growth.

"In terms of CompuServe landing substantial new users from this relaunch, I would be somewhat chary," said Mark Mooradian, group director at Jupiter Communications. "The CompuServe brand doesn't have a whole lot of momentum behind it now. It should be interesting as a community-building effort on the Web, but I don't see it as netting an whole deal of new users."

Additionally, it's not clear to what extent AOL will incorporate CompuServe into its own service. While both companies consider CompuServe to have mainly business-oriented applications, one possibility is that AOL could incorporate it as a business channel on its own online service.

"If AOL were to say overnight [to CompuServe users], 'We're moving you to AOL,' and CompuServe becomes the business channel for AOL, they'll get a fair amount of defections," Mooradian added. "[AOL] needs to migrate them, and CompuServe 4.0 is a migration strategy."

CompuServe 4.0 will be available for a 100-hour free trial, said Weil. Price plans will remain at $9.95 for five hours a month and $2.95 for each extra hour; unlimited usage is $24.95 a month.