Kara Swisher

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AOL Gets More Social With Renovation of Bebo (But There's Much More to Come)

This morning, AOL will launch an updated look for its Bebo social-networking property, with a new “social inbox” profile for its users.

The inbox, which you can see below in the old and new versions, essentially gives its users a one-stop destination, with aggregated social feeds from across the Web, multiple email accounts and media recommendations.

But, according to sources with knowledge of AOL’s plans, the online service is preparing a more radical series of announcements after the new year, well beyond its release today.

Interestingly, the changes to its social-networking and communications properties yet to be announced have been among the things that have impressed Yahoo (YHOO), whose execs have been briefed on the changes, as part of the never-ending talks with the Time Warner (TWX) about buying its AOL asset.

That includes offering AOL’s various social-networking tools–such as chat rooms, news feeds and instant messaging–to be easily embedded by any Web site. The service will be called “Site Social,” with plans to use AOL’s advertising platform to help monetize the offering.

In addition, the renovation of the Bebo profile pages will continue, with more innovative features, including the introduction of an interactive “timeline” that shows a person’s online “lifestream” in a scrolling fashion.

BoomTown has seen the timeline–in which events of any kind can be depicted, from your book club schedule to a trip to Hawaii.

While it looks like eye candy at first, it is also pretty useful–especially a mobile version. And it is definitely the most visually striking version of a news feed that is offered by competitors.

“It is part of a left brain/right brain strategy to improve our services, distinguishing them from the pack,” said one person familiar with the upcoming changes at AOL. “But we also have all these tools and want to reach out to publishers who need to socialize their sites and find it hard to do so.”

The move today to update Bebo, though, is strikingly similar to redesigns that have been recently rolled out by large Web players like Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo.

All are attempts to offer a competing product to popular social-networking sites like Facebook and News Corp. (NWS) unit MySpace, where users have flocked. (News Corp. is the owner of this Web site.)

Those two companies have also been making moves of late to allow consumers to aggregate their disparate piles of online information in through connective offerings that allow them to pool all kinds of Web content and communications in one place.

AOL is hoping its efforts will focus users more on Bebo, which it bought for $850 million in March. Bebo is one of the larger social networks, although it is not popular in the U.S. and lags behind the leaders like Facebook.

AOL execs are hoping to change that by changing the game, focusing on Bebo’s strong media offerings and making it the centerpiece of its social-networking and communications unit, run by former Bebo head Joanna Shields.

AOL’s People Networks unit, which includes Bebo, AIM and ICQ, has an overall audience of 92 million unduplicated users worldwide, said AOL, referencing a recent comScore (SCOR) survey.

“The current fragmented social networking environment makes keeping up-to-date with others increasingly difficult,” said Shields, who is now president of People Networks, in a press release statement. “By opening up our network to the most popular sites and allowing our users to pull in the best of the Internet, we are creating an environment where everyone can easily and effectively manage their online lives, no matter where the individual pieces reside.”

The launch companies for the new inbox include: Twitter, Flickr, Del.icio.us, YouTube, Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, as well as AOL-owned AIM and AOL Mail. In addition, all AOL and AIM users now can now log into Bebo using their credentials and create a profile.

Here’s more specific info, from the AOL press release:

Today’s enhancements to Bebo.com, the first in a series of scheduled releases for early 2009, include:

• Social feed aggregation: Based on technology from newly acquired SocialThing, Bebo’s feed aggregation area enables quick and easy access to photo uploads, status updates and multiple online activities from key social networking destinations such as Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, AIM and Del.icio.us on top of Bebo’s existing social feeds. Bebo’s Social Inbox allows social feeds to be organized in chronological order and grouped by person. A localized RSS feed reader also delivers the latest news and updates from around the globe including the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands.

• E-mail aggregation: The Social Inbox gives consumers one-click access to the most popular e-mail services, including AOL and AIM Mail, Yahoo! Mail and Gmail. Users will be able to preview their e-mail from multiple accounts without having to go from site to site.

• Media Favorites: A new recommendations engine built on the foundations of Bebo’s Open Media Platform delivers the most relevant online entertainment (including video, music, groups and games) into one place. Media Favorites are based on users’ stated preferences and aggregated data such as: what their friends are watching and listening to and what people like them like, subject to appropriate privacy settings. This feed pulls in current Bebo content and group subscriptions, making it easy to get a quick snapshot of all personalized content. Bebo already boasts one of the most extensive online media offerings available, with programming from over 500 media companies including MTV, ESPN, CBS and the BBC.

And here are the before and after Bebo profiles (click on the images to make them larger and keep clicking to make them clearer):



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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus