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First hands-on: AOL's BlueString

AOL's new photo sharing and storage site, BlueString, borrows a lot of its technology from XDrive. That's a good thing.

AOL is showing off today a new media sharing and storage service, BlueString. I snuck into the unfinished product after I got a preview, and it looks like it's going to be very straightforward and easy to use. There are several services that do what it does, but few that do it as easily.

BlueString's neat trick is that it manages to work well as both a sharing site--a good place for you to create slide shows of events that you then e-mail to your family or embed on your personal site--and a media storage service.

BlueString is a good media storage service, and it also makes it very easy to create slideshows for friends and family.

The storage back-end for BlueString is XDrive, an online storage and backup service that AOL acquired, and where AOL has clearly been testing BlueString ideas. BlueString's show creator function, for example, looks like a rebuild of a nearly identical feature in XDrive.

Getting media into BlueString is quite easy. The import dialog box allows you to select multiple files to import at once. If you're a user of AOL Pictures, files from there also automatically load into your workspace. These features are being showcased today at the TechCrunch 40 event in San Francisco. BlueString will also import from Flickr, which is great for people who miss the straightforward Yahoo Photos application recently killed in favor of the higher-concept Flickr service.

I'm told that XDrive will lend BlueString a virtual drive on your desktop, which will make uploading images even easier if you install the software. XDrive will also provide BlueString's Web-based workspace a "desktop" tab, blurring the line (in a good way) between your online storage and your local files. The software will also let you automatically copy new media files on your computer to the BlueString service, which makes it into a nice live online backup product. I found that images uploaded to BlueString also showed up in my XDrive account. I assume the reverse is also true.

When you want to share photos and videos with BlueString/XDrive, you can drag them into a simple timeline and, with a button, create a show. You can also overlay music. In BlueString, if you are sharing media with a group who also has stuff to share, they can "string" their files into your presentation. Since all the slide shows live on the Web, all recipients will then see the new version. Of course, you can also lock presentations against editing by their recipients. Missing from this first beta are editing features of any kind, but these will come later, AOL SVP David Liu told me. It was also unclear to me if recipients of slide shows would be able to view all images at once in a light-table view, or if they would be confined to the linear show.

The service will be free with 5GB of storage. For $100 a year you'll get 50GB, and that storage cap will be raised shortly.

BlueString is Flash-based, and an AIR-based version of it that can live outside the browser is also in the works.

This looks like a very good media-sharing app for real people, and a decent backup app as well. XDrive is a good foundation for the product, but it looks like the BlueString user interface will be a bit more inviting.

One more thing: BlueString will not require an AOL screen name. If you have one you can use it, but you can also use whatever e-mail address you want as your ID. This feature is called "open namespace" and is relatively new. It is getting applied to all of AOL's services.