Safety First With Latest AOL 9.0

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America Online is bundling existing security features along with new ones for the Thursday launch of its AOL 9.0 software client, security edition.

The goal of AOL 9.0 Security Edition (SE) is to make Internet security paramount while keeping the company's mantra to keep it easy enough for the whole family to understand and use. The latest security edition arrives amid a rising number of phishing attacks, malware , spam and sometimes-unsavory Web content that users bump into online.

End user simplicity is a defining principle for the Dulles, Va.-based ISP giant. AOL put it to the test with its latest security update. Based on the improvements in the AOL 9.0 Optimized engine released last year, it features the same interface with a "Safety" button, which brings up a popup safety center.

Kerry Parkins, AOL director of product marketing, said the company saw seven areas of Internet security that needed to be addressed in its security edition: firewall, anti-virus, spyware, parental controls, popup controls, as well as spam and spim protection.

She said the security measures are necessary because of a report the company conducted last month with the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA). The study, which involved researchers visiting the homes of dial-up and broadband users and scanning their systems, found that 19 percent had an active virus running on their computer and 63 percent did not have any current virus protection software in place.

For the novice computer user, getting a robust level of protection can involve up to seven separate products, seven separate installs, seven different configuration tasks and seven different updates, the research said. That's too complicated, Parkins added.

AOL also found most people will take up one of the security measures but get hit with another type of threat, one that cripples their PC and leaves users foundering.

"They wind up calling us for help or they wind up calling Dell or Gateway for help; they call up anyone who can get them out of these situations," she said. "What happens is, it really winds up with consumers not trusting us as a brand; they also lose trust with the Earthlinks and MSNs of the world, and worse, they start to lose trust in the medium in general."

To keep the trust, AOL's safety center is designed to make it easy, with tabs designating the different types of security and safety threats, to launch any number of software applications to protect the computer and family members. They include:

  • Anti-virus: The biggest improvement to AOL's SE offering is the addition of McAfee's ViruScan Online, which was previously a $2.95-a-month premium service for the company but is now offered free to all AOL 9.0 SE customers. Also included in the area is a FAQ on computer security and news on the latest virus threats.
  • Parental Controls: Parents can sign up their children with sub-accounts to restrict them to different age groups, keeping them away from sites with questionable material. If children visit a site that would normally be blocked because of age restrictions, they can fill out a "permission slip" to their parents, who can then visit the particular site and allow them to access the page.
  • General Online Safety: A FAQ site for best practices when shopping online, using passwords, protecting broadband connections and online privacy.
  • Communications Safety: Another FAQ site, this time for tips on handling e-mails, spam, instant messaging and downloading files.
  • Computer Check-Up: Not specifically a security measure but related. The check-up service will scan the user's system and build up a list of possible fixes broken down into "safety and security," "online experience," and "general computer issues."

AOL 9.0 SE is a combination of existing AOL features and some new ones. For example, the McAfee ViruScan service adds to the McAfee Firewall Express, which was first introduced in AOL 9.0 Optimized. A button that lets users identify e-mail spam to AOL staffers has now been extended to SPiM , which experts believe is a growing Internet threat. Officials say an IM Safety List is in the works, which will let parents control who can send messages to their children's IM account.

One new feature, "My Money Alerts," warns members when their registered bank accounts or credit cards go past preset limits while another, SpyZapper, checks for a handful of the more common spyware tools on the PC and lets users choose between deleting the application or not.

Many of the new features are readily available for download on the Internet, or even already present on a person's computer. AOL 9.0 SE's new "Clear My Footprints," which wipes out cookies, history and browser cache, is nothing more than a feature found in the "Options" area within the Mozilla Firefox or "Tools" section with Internet Explorer.

Officials at AOL hope the security updates, and more importantly their ease of use, are enough to convince new and existing users to make the switch to AOL 9.0 SE. According to Anne Bentley, an AOL spokesperson, approximately half of the ISP's 22.7 million subscribers in the U.S. are on existing versions of AOL 9.0, with the rest running on a previous version. Parkins said AOL users on previous versions forgo the newer updates for a variety of reasons, including inexperience installing new applications and hardware limitations.

But the system requirements might make users with older computers think twice. On a notebook PC with a mobile AMD Athlon 1800+, running the AOL browser consumed between 30-70 percent of the CPU's processing power, while the reserving more than 70MB of RAM in system memory to run AOL programs.

Bentley said CPU usage will depend on how many other programs are running at the same time, while AOL 9.0 SE requires 128MB of RAM to run. Acknowledging that this will be a problem for users with older systems, she said the 9.0 SE installer will assess the computer's hardware before loading programs. If the hardware doesn't meet the minimum requirements, the install program will instead load a "limited edition" of the software onto the computer, one that requires only 64MB of RAM.

"We took away some of the features and functionality that were using a lot of resources on the machine," Parkins said. "But for somebody that's coming up from a [AOL version] 5.0, it's still a lot of great features and obviously they get the anti-virus."

AOL's security edition is something of a gamble for the cost-cutting ISP. Earlier this month, the company reorganized its operations into four distinct business units -- Access, Audience, Digital Services and AOL Europe -- and shook up the management tree with the announced spring departures of three C-level executives.

The shakeup was seen as a necessary step to halt sliding subscriber statistics and to find the right mix of products and pricing. In December,the company is expected to cut 700 employees from the rolls in order to further rein in costs.

In the wake of this comes AOL 9.0 SE, with a raft of value-added services. As mentioned earlier, officials decided to stop charging for one of its former premium services, the anti-virus software. Bentley said the decision to include all these security improvements, especially ViruScan, was a calculated decision.

"We took a short term financial hit to be able to offer our members the extra peace of mind that McAfee VirusScan Online will provide," she said. "But longer term it's a great investment, and will pay off financial dividends, through better retention and improved upsell to broadband."

AOL users who want to upgrade can type in AOL Keyword: Upgrade; other interested parties can download the new software at AOL's home page

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