New software aims to breathe life into AOL

America Online (AOL) rolled out what the company touts as its most important product release, taking the wraps off its much- anticipated AOL 8.0 Internet access software on Tuesday, boasting more than 100 new features.

The company is looking to 8.0 as a possible life saver as it struggles to keep afloat amid a tumultuous market, and while faced with rising competition and waning investor confidence.

The new software, which will be officially launched during a glitzy event in New York Tuesday, is designed to bring AOL back to its roots, with a focus on user self-expression and community-based features. The launch comes a little more than a week before Microsoft Corp. is set to release the 8.0 version of its MSN Internet access software, in what has been dubbed the "battle of the 8s."

But AOL said that competition wasn't the only impetus for its feature-packed 8.0.

"We looked honestly in the mirror and we said the latest release we did -- maybe the last couple of releases -- weren't all they could be and we can do better this time," said AOL Vice President Jeffrey Kimball during an interview at Internet World in New York earlier this month.

"So we put some aggressive goals for ourselves. Let's understand the themes we are about -- we are about connecting people," he said.

Indeed, many of the more significant changes are centered around what AOL calls "community" features.

For instance, the new "MatchChat" feature that lets users locate real-time discussions in their areas of interests, and e-mail, the service's most central communication function, have been overhauled to help users sort mail and share content.

AOL 8.0 offers e-mail management functions that categorize mail into one of three groups: "People I Know," "Bulk Senders" and "Unknown Senders," identified by icons next to each mail. And all the mail sits in users' main inboxes so they do not have to search through different folders to sort their mail.

This approach comes in sharp contrast with the "Bulk Mail" folder approach taken by other e-mail providers.

"When we looked at that system, there was a brick wall we ran into," said Kimball. "It just makes things harder. This way, mail from people you know bubbles to the top."

An "away message' feature has also been added, and built-in antivirus features are in the works.

Other significant changes include expanded wireless and online alerts, and a new Call Alert premium service that lets users monitor their incoming phone calls while online.

And, of course, there are the cosmetic changes, which include a seafoam background with additional desktop themes and a toolbar, as well as six new welcome screens catered to different interests.

Users will notice a change in content offerings as well, as 8.0 takes on a TV approach to programming, offering varied content and information according to the time of day and week. In the morning, users are likely to see news and top headlines, for instance, while on Thursday and Friday afternoons movie listings and entertainment options are more likely to appear.

Other updates include having new mail simply appear in users' open inboxes, without having to download it, and the service now automatically tries to reconnect if users are abruptly thrown offline.

The new software also comes with the latest version of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), featuring new animated Buddy Icons that appear next to screen names on users' buddy lists, as well as Buddy Sounds. The new messenger also features IM Wallpaper and a "Music Share" feature, where users can sample music programming and videos and send them to friends on their Buddy List.

For fastidious IM users, AOL has also added a spellcheck feature to AIM for AOL members and a typing indicator that let's users know whether the person they are IMing with is composing a message.

In addition to these bells and whistles, AOL has made enhancements to its address book, message boards, parental controls and photo offerings.

The Internet Service Provider (ISP) has also launched some more prominent additions, such as AOL Companion. The Companion is an icon that stays present on users desktops while they are using other applications, alerting them when they receive new e-mail and instant messages, and giving them one-click access to news updates, search, weather information and other content.

Also on the front lines of AOL 8.0 is the enhanced alert service that sends users reminders online via e-mail or IM, or on wireless phones and other wireless devices. Members can choose to be alerted about breaking news, weather, personal "to-do" items or events happening in their community group, such as when there is a new birth in the family.

Another highly touted offering is AOL Call Alert, a premium service that allows members to monitor incoming calls while they are online. The service comes in response to feedback from users who said that they were concerned about the calls they miss while online, AOL said. Most AOL members are dial-up users with one phone line. However, for US$3.95 a month, users can subscribe to Call Alert, which lets them see the phone numbers of incoming calls and respond to the caller with messages such as telling the caller that they are online and asking them to call their cell phone.

The service has also been revamped for its nearly 4 million broadband users, who are promised added broadband channels, more exclusive programming and, later this year, CD-quality radio.

The new broadband service will feature its own welcome screen with broadband-geared content, such as news and entertainment video clips. The company is also rolling out a new Video@AOL channel on the high-speed service, which will serve as a hub for movie trailers, music videos, news footage and other video content.

"The idea (for broadband) is not to just recap the AOL service faster," said Carlos A. Silva Jr., AOL vice president of broadband programming.

The company also plans to roll out additional broadband features in the months after the launch, Silva said, such as allowing users to create interactive slide shows. As for premium broadband offerings, Silva said that AOL plans to get the basic programming in place before it starts to charge users for extra services.

"The last thing we want to do is hit them with premium services right away," he said.

Both Kimball and Silva said that AOL will be adding premium services "where they make sense."

Although AOL is under pressure to shore up revenue, increasing its subscriber base appears higher on the agenda. Currently, the service has more than 35 million members, but growth in recent quarters has been sluggish. Competition also nips at AOL's heels, as Microsoft Corp. prepares for a no-holds-barred launch of it's updated service on Oct. 24.

During a keynote address at Internet World, new AOL head Jon Miller said the release of 8.0 will be the company's most important product release to date.

Whether the feature-packed software packs a punch remains to be seen, however.

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