AOL to change plan, offer more free services
NEW YORK – Stepping up the chase for online advertising dollars, AOL will give away e-mail accounts and software now available only to its paying customers in a strategy shift likely to accelerate the decline in its core Internet access business.The decision, announced Wednesday by AOL parent Time Warner Inc., removes the few remaining reasons for AOL subscribers to keep paying when they already have high-speed Internet access through a cable or phone company.”We’ve listened to our customers, and many of them want to keep using these AOL products when they migrate to broadband – but not pay extra for them,” said Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner’s president and chief operating officer.AOL will still offer its dial-up accounts at $26 a month for unlimited use, but the company no longer will aggressively market the service. That’s likely to mean the end of mailboxes stuffed with CDs of trial AOL software, as well as job cuts in marketing and customer service. The company did not announce how many layoffs will result.The changes are to fully take effect in early September.Subscribers who dropped AOL within the past two years will be able to reclaim their old AOL.com e-mail addresses.AOL hopes that by making services free, it can draw Internet users to its ad-supported Web sites and keep them from defecting to Yahoo Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., all of which have offered free e-mail for years.Advertising, though a relatively small part of AOL’s revenues, saw a 40 percent boost in the second quarter of 2006. Subscriptions, which make up 80 percent of AOL’s revenues, dropped 11 percent, while the unit’s overall revenues declined 2 percent. AOL contributed to 19 percent of Time Warner’s revenues in the first half of the year.Although millions of subscribers are now likely to drop their paid accounts, AOL has little choice. AOL lost 976,000 U.S. subscribers in the past quarter alone even with the premium offerings. As of June 30, AOL had 17.7 million subscribers, a 34 percent drop from its peak of 26.7 million in September 2002.Besides e-mail, AOL will give away its proprietary software for accessing the once-premium offerings, as well as safety and security features such as parental controls.”This is the next logical step for AOL to capitalize further on the explosive rise in broadband usage and online advertising,” Bewkes said. “With its robust and rapidly expanding advertising operation, we expect to put AOL back on a growth path.”Investors have been cautious about Time Warner’s prospects. Even as word of the new strategy circulated in news reports, Time Warner stock prices have been hovering near its 52-week low of $15.70 in recent weeks. The shares rose 25 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $16.50 in pre-market trading.In late 2004, AOL began moving away from its roots as a walled-garden service emphasizing exclusive content, making most of its news, music videos and other features available for free on its ad-supported sites.The move was driven by the fact that as more Americans turned elsewhere for high-speed service, they no longer needed AOL for dial-up access and didn’t find the exclusive content enough to justify the price.Although the company tried to keep some customers paying by giving free e-mail accounts only with less-desirable AIM.com addresses, many subscribers defected to free offerings elsewhere.AOL also tried to keep its proprietary software a premium offering, but that only made the transition difficult for those who dropped subscriptions but still wanted AOL’s free content. They had to learn new tools, and in doing so, could more easily discover rival offerings.Jonathan Miller, AOL’s chairman and chief executive officer, said the strategy shift would help the unit “maintain and deepen our relationship with many more members who are likely to migrate to broadband. Providing them with their familiar AOL software and e-mail for free, over any broadband connection, will be critical to our future success.”
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