Can a Design Save AOL’s $850 Million Buy, Bebo?

beboinbox1Bebo, a social network that was acquired by Time Warner’s (s TWX) AOL division for a whopping $850 million, today launched an effort that allows its users to aggregate various social web services into a brand-new home page. The Bebo service, which is popular in overseas markets and has about 50 million subscribers, is getting a major facelift. While it takes cues from the “news feed” approach taken by Facebook (which took it from another place), the company is going a step further and introducing a new Social Inbox.

Social Inbox essentially allows folks to aggregate not only their web services but also their communications services such as AIM, Gmail, Yahoo and AOL mail into one place. AOL and AIM users can now log directly into the Bebo service using their existing screen names. It allows you to read RSS feeds as well. Social Inbox is based on Bebo’s SocialThing acquisition.  [digg=]

My reaction to this news is — AOL needs to grow Bebo quickly and not have that social network get Friendster-ed. It is losing the mindshare battle to Facebook, and whatever anyone says, $850 million was a lot a money to pay for Bebo. The only person who didn’t think so was AOL management, and Bebo founders, who got rich. AOL is hoping this redesign is going to give them a chance to transition lots of AOL users to Bebo. Maybe — for a lot of people are already on Facebook. This Social Inbox isn’t much of a differentiator from Facebook. 

bebooldIt is hard for me to judge how the Bebo community is going to react to the new design as it’s not a service I have used. The then-and-now designs are quite different. For AOL, this is a big risk.

But it’s one they’re willing to take. In a conversation, David Liu, senior V-P of AOL People Networks, argued that most folks who are online are looking for ways to aggregate their web services into one place. Instead of trying to fight the tide, Bebo is just embracing all web offerings and “aggregating communication and community.” His comments are in line with some of the themes I have been exploring over the past few weeks.

In the early days of what is now known as the Web 2.0 movement, we all stepped away from monolithic portals and moved towards more individualistic web services, which led to the rise of iconic offerings such as Flickr, Delicious and YouTube.

Thanks to trends such as infrastructure on demand, virtual work spaces, distributed talent pools, open source and agile development methodologies, it became possible for inquisitive and creative minds to hang a shingle and offer their own web-based services. And in short order, hundreds of services cropped up, and a few became breakout hits. In the process, the web users were faced with a dilemma that comes with paucity of time – how to use and manage all these web services.

This has led to a federate vs. aggregate debate, and the ID wars. Nevertheless, whether it is Bebo, Facebook, MySpace or Google – they are all trying to solve the problem of plenty. From the looks of it, Bebo is taking a stab at keeping its users happy by giving them ways to simplify their web, and not go elsewhere.