AOL expands Web services

America Online launches a news entertainment site dubbed "Entertainment Asylum" and plans personalized news, Net mail, and 16 channels of editorial content.

Jeff Pelline
Jeff Pelline Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jeff Pelline is editor of CNET News.com. Jeff promises to buy a Toyota Prius once hybrid cars are allowed in the carpool lane with solo drivers.
4 min read
America Online is stepping out on the Web.

The online service today launched a news entertainment site dubbed "Entertainment Asylum," and it also is planning personalized news, Net mail, and 16 channels of editorial content on its AOL.com site.

Entertainment Asylum is a "one-stop interactive resource for anyone wanting to know more about the entertainment industry," according to AOL. It also will be distributed over AOL's "Entertainment Channel" on its proprietary service. Partners include Universal, Sony, CBS, and Warner Brothers, among others.

AOL also is quietly planning to soup up its AOL.com site. The 16 channels list reviews of Web sites and include ads from such companies as Intel, Amazon.com, Women's Wire, and Planet Direct. The "News Channel" lists and links to the Web sites of ABCNews.com, the New York Times, National Public Radio Online, and others under the category "our favorites."

The moves, among AOL's boldest on the Web to date, are a prime example of the blurring lines between proprietary online services and Web-based directories such as Yahoo, Excite, and Infoseek, which increasingly are offering many of the same features. With free email, channels, and customized news, the service is highlighting some of the most popular features on the Internet.

The strategy appears to be AOL's answer to the recent onslaught of competing Web services without undermining its proprietary, subscription-based network. Besides the Internet directories, AOL faces competition from online news sites such as MSNBC, CNN, and Snap! Online, which is a division of CNET: The Computer Network.

The AOL channels do not, however, list news headlines separately--a trademark of Yahoo--and key content such as stock quotes is still reserved for AOL members. That's a strong indication that AOL.com is meant to supplement, not substitute, its proprietary service.

"The site is under construction, and it's in beta, and we'll have some announcements soon," was all that AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg would say today.

As previously reported, AOL last week began quietly redesigning its Web site, which its newly released annual report contends is the most-visited site on the Internet. Some of the upcoming features are mentioned on the revamped site.

"Coming Soon! Your AOL E-mail from the Web!" says another icon on the site. "This free new service from America Online lets you send and receive your AOL e-mail directly via the Internet, just like when you're logged onto your AOL account. So, no matter where you are: on the road, at a friend's house, or in the office...anywhere you can get onto the World Wide Web, you can access your AOL e-mail."

That service appears to differ from other free Web-based email, such as that offered by Hotmail, Yahoo, and Excite, which do not require AOL membership.

The AOL NetChannels listed on the site are personal finance, travel, computing, workplace, shopping, entertainment, news, sports, local, research, health, families, kids only, interests, lifestyles, and international. Much of the material comes from AOL's existing content partners, such as Preview Travel and Motley Fool. AOL supports interactive content projects through its Greenhouse Networks, Digital City, and WorldPlay business units.

The Web site also says AOL.com will soon introduce "My News, a new product that serves as your daily online newspaper." It says My News is divided into four categories: top headlines, entertainment, business, and sports. "You will be able to customize within these categories to receive content that suits your personal interests," it adds.

Such customized news features are gaining in popularity. In June, for example, CNN Interactive and Oracle opened a cobranded site on the Web, appropriately dubbed Custom News, that offers personalized news from the cable network and more than 100 other magazines and media organizations. (See related story)

To many Netizens, AOL's move should not come as a surprise. In the past year, AOL has been beefing up its Web site with features such as online yellow pages, a search function, and Internet messaging.

The company also has stated that its goal is to generate more money from advertising and online transactions, and the souped-up Web site should help. The shopping channel, for example, will help maximize the reach of its online e-commerce partners. According to the site, AOL's shopping channel is "coming soon" to provide transactions with "dozens of top-name merchants."

Rival Microsoft Network, is executing a similar strategy, moving content into free areas where it can generate more money from advertising and e-commerce. (See related story)

Last week, Microsoft announced plans to launch its own Web-based search engine, both for the Web and the proprietary MSN service. Earlier this month, CompuServe unveiled plans for a Web-based service dubbed "C." CompuServe's online services business is being sold to AOL, pending regulatory approval.

Perhaps as a signal of its new Web strategy, AOL chief executive Steve Case resigned from the board of directors of Excite recently, largely because the companies were rapidly becoming direct competitors in this arena. AOL also sold 6 percent of the 3.3 million shares that it holds in Excite.