America Online launched a service Wednesday for the burgeoning market of U.S. households where Spanish is mostly or exclusively spoken.
In addition to the familiar "You've got mail!" greeting, the AOL Latino service is wholly in Spanish, down to the instructions on installation CDs.
The U.S. Hispanic population, the country's largest minority group, has grown over the past two years at nearly four times the rate of the overall population. Latinos are also catching up to whites and Asians online.
Online information outlets have responded.
Yahoo! Inc. already has a "Yahoo! En Espanol" site with news, maps and even greeting cards in Spanish, while Microsoft Corp.'s MSN has acquired the Spanish-language Yupi portal. Both companies also offer instant-messaging software and Web-based e-mail in Spanish.
AOL's service goes further, offering a complete package - including software to connect, send e-mail and browse the Web in Spanish and a toll-free number for Spanish customer support.
Spanish-language products from Microsoft and other companies are typically difficult or impossible to obtain in the United States.
"The Internet experience today is very much in English," said Charlene Li, analyst at Forrester Research. "If you are a predominantly Spanish speaker, AOL Latino really serves that market."
According to a U.S. Commerce Department study last year, only 14 percent of Hispanics in Spanish-only households were online, compared with 38 percent in bilingual and English-dominant households.
AOL already has some 2.3 million Latino subscribers in the United States, but they tend to be English speakers.
"Now it's time for the second phase," said David Wellisch, general manager for AOL Latino. "Language has acted as a barrier that we are now ready to resolve."
The Commerce study shows Hispanics still trailing whites and Asians online, though their growth rate is higher. A more recent study from Pew Internet and American Life Project has Latinos just a few percentage points behind whites; that survey, however, was conducted in English.
Latinos face the same barriers that blacks do - including lower income and education as a group - but they must also contend with language and cultural hurdles, analysts say.
Latinos from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Bolivia, for example, can vary widely in their interests. Content providers such as Terra.com have tried to address the diversity by offering distinct material from each of the home countries. They have also tried to entice the disparate Latino community by focusing on such common interests as soccer and electronic money transfers to relatives back home, said Mark Lopez, a Terra executive.
AOL is taking a similar approach in its offerings, partnering with about 20 U.S. providers of Hispanic content and linking to major Latin American newspapers. It is also getting original content from such subsidiaries as AOL Argentina as well as from freelancers in U.S. cities.
"We're not a dubbing exercise, a translator exercise," said Wellisch, 33, who emigrated from Ecuador at age 18. "It's not just AOL in Spanish. It's about issues Hispanic communities face - immigration, issues about their countries."
He said AOL Latino has more than a dozen but fewer than 100 employees. He would not be more specific, other than to say a few are located in Miami, San Jose, Calif., and other cities with large Latino populations.
After connecting, subscribers hear "Bienvenido, estas en linea" - or "Welcome, you're online" - as a way to make Spanish speakers immediately feel at home. The English version of AOL has only "Welcome."
Subscribers to the regular AOL service also can get AOL Latino features or choose a Spanish welcome screen without the Spanish software. Pricing plans are the same - $23.90 a month for unlimited use.
The AOL Latino service initially may not serve all of the Hispanic community's needs, however. For instance, buying a ticket for a Spanish-language movie still requires navigating AOL's Moviefone in English.
Richard Israel, vice president for Hispanic marketing solutions at comScore Media Metrix, notes that some travel and automotive sites have already begun offering e-commerce interfaces in Spanish.
Initially about 30 percent of AOL features are available in Spanish, said Wellisch, and the goal is to add the rest over time.
The emphasis will be on features most likely to appeal to Hispanic households, Wellisch said, such as bilingual "Homework Help" tutors to address households with Spanish-speaking parents but English-speaking children.
Juliana Deeks, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said AOL's first priority is simply software that lets users get online in Spanish: "We're still in kind of the first phase of this mad-dash land grab for the Latino audience and their purchasing power."
By Anick Jesdanun