brian on 2005.08.29
at 05:16 pm
AOL is in transition. Its traditional revenue model was being America’s largest dial-up internet service provider. That is now in decline due to the significant growth of broadband in the United States. Now, they are attempting to become a portal and content provider.
Part of this is an AOL Radio Client for their subscribers. It’s a stand alone application that authenticates with AOL, then passes along AOL’s web audio through its own player.
AOL Radio for Mac is currently in public Beta testing for AOL subscribers. I have had a chance to have a look at the application. You may be asking yourself, “Why? Who needs another media client on their computer?”
Fair question. AOL’s ace-in-the-hole is content from satellite radio provider XM Radio. Without subscribing to XM, plus paying an additional fee to listen to their content over the web, there’s no other way to hear XM on the web.
The app is a ~10MB download, free for AOL subscribers. It uncompresses and is simply dragged into your applications folder without any installers. One double-click and application loads up and asks you to sign in to AOL. This does not launch any other applications, and no other AOL client needs to be present on your system for this to work. Authentication takes only a few seconds, and then a few more seconds for the application to download the information for all of AOLs webstreams, including the XM content.
The brushed metal interface resembles iTunes, with a single Play/Pause button, and the familiar horizontal volume slider. The program appears to built upon QuickTime as the read-me file states that it will automatically set the proper streaming bandwidth for your chosen stream via the QuickTime preference pane settings.
Additionally, the AOL Radio client will update your iChat status with the current playing track, prefaced with “AOL Radio.” This occurred automatically on my system, without asking. A preference in the AOL Radio client can turn this off.
Current track information resides in a translucent window, with a similar placement as the iTunes info window. You can choose the color of the window and text, but more interestingly, the artist, album and song titles are all live links, and clicking on them allows you to search for that criteria on either the iTunes Music Store (with which AOL is affiliated) or AOL’s Music website. With rumors in the past about XM and Apple iPod/iTunes integration, this may be as close as it gets (or perhaps, the seed from which that wild speculation sprung from).
The interface is clean, and easy to navigate, but I would withhold the “pretty” moniker. The only surprise is the now playing alert that springs up each time the song changes. It is in the same vein as the “Eject” notification OS X provides when hold the eject button on your Mac’s keyboard. This, like the iChat status, is a toggled option in the preferences. Also, performing ctrl-/right-click or click-and-hold on the application’s dock icon also yields useful info, including now playing info, quick hops to your six station presets and play/pause controls.
While it may win no awards, the good news is that it is clearly written by true Macintosh developers on AOLs staff. I suspect it may have arisen from the same unit that gave us the AOL Service Assistant and AOL Connect applications, of whom are Mac developers involved with the outstanding Camino Project.
Other positives include good selection of commercial-free music, and quality sound. Also, through my cable 4mb/s connection, there was zero skipping nor rebuffering in the two hours of use before I wrote this.
What’s the bad news? Well, if you’re not a subscriber to AOL, then none of this is relevant to you. But if you are, a certain downside is the fact that you can’t listen to these streams via your AirPort Express. Since that is exclusively linked to iTunes, and you won’t be able to play these streams through that, since that would require authentication. Other downsides include not knowing what bit rate your streams are, nor the ability to choose from them if you wanted. Also, there is a smallish banner ad at the bottom of the interface for AOL properties. While I was signed on, it was only advertising for AOL things. I’m uncertain whether they will sell this space to outside companies, like on the AIM client. I’ve never understood why people who subscribe to AOL (at a premium price) have to look at ads. If it was a budget ISP, that might be more understandable.
So why this review? Well, AOL certainly has its share of detractors. So when they bring out something that’s new and works well, they deserve credit. If this didn’t include XM content, I probably wouldn’t have downloaded this application.
This application plus the other two applications which allow you to use Apple’s built in internet utilities and applications (Internet Connect, Mail, iChat, Address Book, Safari) to access AOL’s network over both dial-up and broadband are evidence of AOL’s improved support for its Mac-using customers. AOL’s all-in-one client has been rightfully criticized for its chunkiness and proprietary nature. This new round of applications shows a new direction for AOL.
The question remains, will this help AOL maintain or grow subscribership? This will remain to been seen, but it’s clear that of the major internet service providers, AOL is almost exclusive in its development of special extras for the Macintosh platform. And that is to be commended.
Comments have been automatically disabled to curtail spam.