Who'd a thunk it? AOL is doing some pretty cool stuff. Yes, AOL. The company showed off new initiatives to reporters in a casual briefing Thursday night and while I can't speak for others, I walked away impressed.
The new AOL is much different than the old America Online, a company famous for the squeak of dialup modems and "You've got mail!"
The first fix? Move some of the best minds away from the company's headquarters in old fashioned Virginia and to the hip and happening Palo Alto. Hire Stanford grads (lots of Stanford grads).
In fact, AOL's west coast offices offer no-strings-attached incubator space to Stanford students with the hopes the young computer scientists will stick around and take jobs at AOL. Even if they don't, they fill the offices with the young "can do" attitude that an old-media company so desperately needs. The new west coast offices, with bright colors and snarky signs feels -- dare I say it -- Googley.
AOL is working on a number of new projects, one of which is predictably code named Phoenix - rising from the ashes and all that.
"We no longer say 'turnaround'" says West Coast head Brad Garlinghouse. "We've already turned the company around. Now we're concentrating on comeback."
It's about updated and freshened up web pages, fixed broken links and otherwise cleaned house. AOL is surprisingly honest about the poor condition the company was in following (or even during) its merger with Time Warner.
One head engineer compared some of AOL's past aesthetics to dog poo. AOL has a long way to go, but is clearly getting its poo together.
CLEANER, FASTER, MORE EFFICIENT
AOL's new look is cleaner, with more white space and better typography. It updated AOL Mail with a fresher look and fewer ads. An even newer update to mail -still under wraps- looks fabulous. Think Flipboard meets email.
There is still a lot of work ahead, the scope of which astounds new employees. Some AOL websites carry copyright information in the footer with dates years old. "How hard is it to fix that?" asked one engineer out loud.
One of the most promising new ideas come from Jason Shellen's team, which came to AOL when the company bought Thing Labs. (The company is best known for its Twitter client Brizzly.) Called AV, it’s a simple site that creates a video chat room via a weblink.
Go to www.aim.com/av and with one click the Flash based site generates a short link which you can send to friends via Facebook, email or Twitter. (Or, AOL quickly points out, via AIM chat -- both options are in beta.)
Your friend then clicks on the link and is brought right into the video chat.
The process does require an updated download of Flash, specifically Adobe's 10.3 which is also still in beta. It's a one-time issue that will disappear eventually.
It's immediately obvious that once AOL's AV is fully realized, anyone who can use a web browser can initiate a video chat. The company probably hope to attract teenagers, but frankly my first thought was my elderly parents.
Of course, what about that Skype/Microsoft deal that happened this week? Skype fundamentally does the same thing, though at a price of $8 billion plus. AOL's Shellen is quick to discourage the comparison, pointing out AV's video quality is a fraction of Skype's.
Whether Brad Garlinghouse and his young fresh team can actually repeat the story of the Phoenix remains to be seen. And "remains to be seen" is journalist code for "hell if I know," by the way.
AOL's entire business model - an amalgam of new sites like Huffington Post and TechCruch and old services like AOL Mail - is still largely old school, not dissimilar to Garlinghouse's previous employer Yahoo. But the new AOL is a cool Yahoo. What exactly that means.. remains to be seen.