Red Herring reports on the debut of AOL's new OpenRide beta, a new desktop interface combining access to Web pages, email, instant messaging and multimedia sources in one application. OpenRide gets kind reviews from Red Herring and others such as paidContent.org, in spite of it being largely a subscription-free rehash of AOL's previous all-in-one offerings. Call it workflow for the masses, if you will, a well-designed interface that eliminates reliance on desktop applications for multiple content and communications features tuned to the online lifestyles of AOL's core media-centric audience. With larger screens becoming the norm for many users the relatively jam-packed interface is not likely to overwhelm many users who would like to gain from its claimed productivity benefits. Note to AOL: your product manager doesn't have to yak about "broadband" so much in the demo video. If they have a connection good enough to play a video they already are broadband users and are going to be your base anyway. It's an industry term that means little to users.
By contrast Google is now pushing its Universal Gadgets, small applications previously reserved for use via Google Desktop and its personalized Web home pages that are now embeddable in any HTML-based Web page. The gadgets available run a wide range from the entertaining (a Sesame Street terrorist threat-style warning scale - we're at condition "Ernie" right now) to practical widgets such as maps, weather, time and dictionary access. This brings Google to where the content is one step further, instead of trying to bring the users to a Google-ized desktop. Is either approach "the" way to go? Not necessarily, but it's interesting to note that Google still focuses on trying to put its capabilities in as many contexts as possible while media companies still focus on getting as many contexts as possible stripped and sanitized for large product offerings.
Portals aren't a bad thing, and Google could certainly benefit from some improved integration of their own resources, with too many parallel projects yielding a "what it is all about" mish-mosh of results that dilute the brand. But in the long run putting your brand where the content is means that it's more likely to be valued in contexts that your audience value most. We'll see if AOL's OpenRide can stem a precipitous drop in its online loyalty, but my guess is that it's a good piece of software solving a problem that not that many Web-savvy users are asking to be fixed at this point. It will take more orientation towards users as publishers to make such a workflow-oriented desktop applications a runaway success.