Home Interview: Can Userplane Help Transform AOL?

Interview: Can Userplane Help Transform AOL?

In August
AOL 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.

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

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

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

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

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!

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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