AOL US launched AOL Communicator for Mac OS X in the US last week, a product which, according to a company press release "extends powerful communications to Mac OS X users". The software offers integrated email, Instant Messaging and Address Book to users. However, Mac AOL users in the UK will continue to enjoy a reduced set of services in comparison to those AOL US offers.
UK Mac users are going to have to wait for Communicator for OS X, AOL UK's communications manager Vicky Prior told Macworld: "We have no specific timeframe at this stage for the launch of AOL Communicator for Mac OS X in the UK."
AOL and Macs: limited resources
AOL UK's schedule for delivering new OS X software in the UK reflects its limited development resources, Prior claimed.
"We always need to take into account local demand for a product before we can devote the significant resources required to localize and develop it for a specific platform. This situation is constantly under review, however," she promised.
AOL organizes its global presence into individual business units. This means AOLs UK subsidiary can choose which services to offer customers, and AOL UK has not always favoured Mac users here.
The UK branch of the company controversially announced plans to discontinue work on a Mac OS X AOL UK service in November 2001.
AOL UK's then chief communications officer Matt Peacock said: "It's not possible for us to justify the considerable investment required to create a new localized version of our browser for a niche market platform such as OS X, but we will watch the Mac market and reconsider the decision."
AOL UK finally released AOL for Mac OS X in November 2002.
OS X migration levels in AOL's dock
The company's head of corporate media relations Jonathan Lambeth told Macworld today: "We offered AOL for OS X and have had some take-up but it's not massive. We believe a lot of our Apple customers in the UK simply haven't moved to that OS yet and so are not taking up that AOL client as yet."
AOL US has an Apple and Mac OS X-friendly image. Users there enjoy AirPort and broadband support from the Internet services company; will enjoy access to iTunes Music Store from within the AOL browser provided by the Internet services company; and now also enjoy the new integrated messaging suite from the Internet services company.
UK Mac users get short thrift - none of these services are available to them through AOL.
AOL does not offer a broadband service for UK Mac users. This means that because AirPort/wireless support by AOL's software is only available as part of the AOL Broadband offering, Mac users wanting to create AirPort networks can't - or need to move to a new ISP.
It also means Mac users can't use AOL UK's recently launched Internet radio service, which is only available to its broadband customers.
Lambeth said: "These decisions are under regular review. Our policy is that when there is sufficient interest among the customer base, then we can review the economics and demand - as we did with OS X support." Prior confirmed that AOL will next review the situation in "the first half of 2004".
Dance of death: Iron Maiden and AOL
Some AOL customers can't wait until next year. British rock band Iron Maiden chose to use AOL - an ISP with a global reach - when it was touring. AOL's service seemed a simple-to-implement, cost-effective communications choice for a band on a world tour.
"We have travelled across the world promoting our new album," explained chief technician, Johnny B. "We found AOL to be an ideal choice. We bought AirPorts in the US, and we found them incredibly useful when accessing the Net from hotel rooms or backstage at gigs." The touring party - 120 people - signed up for AOL.
On the band's return to the UK, it found its AirPort Base Stations didn't work. Calls to AOL Tech support confirmed the company does not support AirPort on Macs, as AOL offers no broadband service for Mac users here.
Lambeth told Johnny B: "We launched AOL for Mac OS X narrowband services only months ago and we have no plans for another immediate Mac release until there is reasonable demand from sufficient Mac members."
While AOL tried to help Iron Maiden resolve its problems, despite the company's lack of official support for AirPort in the UK, Lambeth stressed the level of investment required to furnish official support.
However, the investment costs cited by AOL UK as the rationale to provide no AirPort support for Mac users may be less than the company claims, Johnny B implied: The band's technical crew joined forces one weekend, and managed to make AOL's UK software work with AirPort.
It's not just software
Lambeth responded: "It is entirely at a customer's discretion to connect to an unsupported service." He stressed that furnishing such support required more than a software update.
"Once we do support something we would have to have a technical team trained and ready for those kind of enquiries - it is not something one can do half-heartedly," he said.
Asked why the company doesn't offer such support already, Lambeth said: "It actually takes significant resources to support different services - we clearly need to have trained staff available during our customer support hours, all the proper testing done on various configurations and a full understanding of all the possible wireless services someone might want to connect to and hardware to connect with. That all requires reasonable demand for each service."
A dissatisfied Johnny B asks: "I don't understand how AOL UK can charge Mac users the same subscription rate as it does PC users when it provides a lesser level of service, has limited Mac tech support facilities, and does not furnish the same level of research and development for Macs as AOL US does. Why should I pay the same subscription rate as a PC user for an inferior service?" he asked.
Mac users 'important' – AOL
Lambeth does not think AOL UK's Mac service is inferior: "We make constant judgments as to how to allocate finite resources. In the US there is a much larger client base on every platform (total around 23 million customers) and consequently significantly larger resources available for development. We have a small but important Apple client base in the UK, and hope that as more and more move to the AOL for Mac OS X client we will be able to make a stronger case for further Mac products. This is always under review."
Johnny B asked Macworld: "What I don't understand is how AOL expects to see enough Mac users taking up its services in the UK to justify expanding its Mac membership if it offers so little to them now."
Lambeth countered: "Mac users receive the same tech support as PC users. Equally, they receive the same, if not greater, development focus for products relative to the number of customers and demand for products."
Asked if AOL UK was moving to quit the Mac market by making its service offering less attractive to that market, Lambeth said: "Absolutely not. We want to continually grow our customer base and that includes Mac customers."
"Despite questions about products we may or may not offer in the next year, we still think what we do offer is the best narrowband package compared to what else is available to Mac users," he said.