I admit that I have done my share of sniffing at AOL and some of its many models and moves over the years. As a subscriber back in the early 90s, I was happy to leave its tortured proprietary interface behind, along with its dial-up speeds and monthly fees, when I got my first cable modem in ’95. I can’t even track how many identities and models it has taken on since. I think everyone knows someone who has gotten caught in one of the company’s many rounds of downsizing.
But on the mobile side I have always quietly admired some of the company’s work in recent years. Its early mobile search engines and Web app portals showed real thoughtfulness in design and usability. Their tablet-aware home page is still one of the better ones around. And the Editions personalized news magazine, its weekly Distro tablet app version of Engadget and great TechCrunch app all show that whatever you think of AOL’s business direction, some folks are still there thinking.
The video realm is one of the most successful and active for AOL. It has built a massive collection of quality video across many categories into a hub and syndication that now get over 1 billion streams a month. The AOL On Network of video, launched in April, collects branded video from the likes of Martha Stewart, E!, Travel Channel, CNET, and many others to blend in with its own gadget, how-to and HuffPo libraries. It is also now present on 10 connected TV devices, including Google TV, Boxee, Tivo and Sony and Samsung TVs.
And this week the On Network came to iOS and Android devices with what looks like another smart mobile production from the company. The app is all about quick and clear video discovery. The home page of highlighted videos has these adorable stickers denoting types of shared Web video experiences (OMG!, LOL, Must-See). This makes for a nice way to scroll through assorted clips and quickly find the type of clip that matches your mood.
But the app is great at getting out of your way. Rather than clutter the interface with too many sharing tools and too much ancillary info, a slide-in rail on the left offers you an index of topics, and a rail on the right offers providers. The search box is your real tool for surfacing the right video. I was able to get to the how-to clips easily. The videos run in full-screen and have very simple Twitter and Facebook sharing tools that fade in at a touch. Elegant.
Missing from the app so far as I could see were the increasingly important cross-platform synchronization capabilities. I could find no way to log into my AOL account (yup, still have the same username after all these years) so I can favorite a video on one device to view later. When it comes to video especially, I think having seamless experiences across screens will be critical. Many of us use smartphones to triage content we will lean back to view elsewhere. It should be de rigeur for any cross-platform play.