acquired online communications startup Userplane - which runs a suite of chat, IM, A/V Recorder, search and presence tools. AOL is in the midst of a big shift in businenss models - from closed 'walled garden', to a more open, web services-driven portal offering. For example AOL is to end its reliance on dial-up subscription fees and offer its e-mail service for free. It will also grow its online advertising revenues, to become more like its rivals Yahoo, Google and MSN.In August AOL
So what impact will Userplane and its nimble startup values have on the giant AOL? As it was put to me in an introductory email from Userplane:
"Though small, Userplane is poised to have a big impact on AOL, because it already does what the old AOL could not. Positioned as "the open arm of AOL," the company provides Web-based instant messaging and live audio/visual chat to more than 100,000 online communities, from the behemoth that is MySpace to the tiniest niche online dating site. What's more, Userplane already delivers more than 1 billion ads per month to more than 40 million users in 25 countries."
I interviewed Userplane co-founder Michael Jones to find out more...
R/WW: Firstly, congratulations Mike on the deal with AOL! Can you tell us how Userplane has been integrated into AOL so far - what kind of things are you focusing on first?
Mike: Thanks! It has been a busy last few weeks, becoming acquainted with AOL and the lead management of AOL. Our current focus remains the same – building out our network and product suite to enhance external online communities. Personally, I've been having an interesting time becoming familiar with the inner workings of AOL and finding areas where the Userplane team can add value.
I've also come across some impressive products that the AOL and AIM teams have built over the years—products that will be strong enhancements for Userplane clients. Part of our strategy includes embracing these products and putting them into formats that can be used to improve external online community interaction.
R/WW: You say (in the email I received) that Userplane will help AOL "embrace openness" - do you think AIM will become a completely open platform in the near future, with open APIs and ability to chat with other IM systems? Or will it be a slower gradual transformation which may take many months, given AIM's size and AOL being such a large organization?
Mike: I believe that AOL has a focus on openness just as Userplane does, and that philosophy absolutely applies to AIM. As we grow and develop into AOL 2.0 : ), there will be many new open aspects to our entire offering. I'm a personal proponent of building tools that are best suited to users’ needs and believe interoperability is one of those requirements.
R/WW: How much of an influence do you think Userplane will have in changing AOL's culture into a more open and innovative one? I've actually been pretty impressed so far with their AIMPages initiative, which seems a lot more open than some of the other big companies. So is acquiring Userplane simply another step in that direction, or is there something unique that Userplane brings to the table that will transform AOL?
Mike: We expect Userplane to have a great influence on the future of AOL's strategy and culture. One aspect that is interesting about the acquisition of Userplane is that Userplane primarily is a company built around interfacing and enhancing other properties. We offer a unique channel to support AOL's open initiative. I'm often asked if Userplane will continue to support its clients, and the answer is "of course.” We're a company built around the open relationship between companies through mutually beneficial tools and applications. Userplane represents a new way for companies to develop a relationship with AOL and allow them to benefit from AOL’s size and expertise.
AIM Pages is an interesting property. It was a strong initiative within AOL and executed in record time. Social networking is now on par with email and search. MySpace has planted a flag and claimed the social networking space, which is very impressive. We currently work with MySpace on their Web IM, Web Presence and Webchat and hope to continue supporting these efforts with properties that work in an open manner.
R/WW: While AOL is making moves to become more open, we're not seeing the same openness from other big companies - like MySpace or even Google. Do you think that AOL and perhaps others like Yahoo can take a leadership position here and (over time) compel the laggards to open up too? I'm thinking particularly of social networking, where industry-wide open APIs would make Userplane/AIM interoperable across multiple social networks.
Mike: The interop of Userplane is interesting. I'm also a believer in opening user profile databases to better enable users to control their individual identities within all these social networking sites. I think AOL is making strides in this new open direction, but that’s largely been overlooked by the media and Silicon Valley crowd. Open infrastructure is on the minds and tongues of most large Internet companies, and one of my goals is to make sure AOL continues to pioneer it.
R/WW: Finally, Read/WriteWeb is a blog focused on next generation Web Technology. Can you tell us what new functionality Userplane has in store that will knock our socks off? ;-)
Mike: Sure. In addition to the much anticipated AIM interoperability, you can also expect some new interactive experiences in actual applications. We'll be launching games soon, along with an innovative buddy list, which will drastically increase overall community activity on all our sites. In addition, we expect our desktop product -- which is currently rolling out of testing and into live deployments -- to be a significant market mover for us. Bringing Userplane down to the desktop will be a major shift for online communities overall – it should substantially increase overall community activity and messaging – and level the playing field for all communities, desktop or web based!