AOL prepares version 9 update

Call it keeping up with the Internet Joneses, or maybe with MSN and Yahoo: America Online Inc.'s latest update to its client service, AOL 9.0 Optimized, sports a new look and functions, from a blogging tool to a messaging spam filter and firewall.

America Online is tight-lipped about the final release date of AOL 9.0 Optimized, saying only the software could be ready for the AOL masses as early as August. But if you're an AOL member champing at the bit for a look at the next version, you can test a prerelease version of the software by typing the keyword "beta."

The qualifier "Optimized" is added to AOL 9.0 to underscore three areas of focus, according to AOL representatives. The update optimizes safety and security, ease of use, and "bringing the fun back," according to Kerry Pearce-Parkins, a principal product manager with AOL. "In a very literal sense, we have optimized the AOL experience," she says.

AOL touts the release as the "most significant upgrade in AOL history." A review of the client shows a solid improvement over AOL 8, but the revamp is hardly the major update that AOL promotes it as.

Unfortunately, many of its anticipated new features, such as the AOL Journal, instant-messaging blocker, and a dial-up acceleration tool, are not available in the beta.

Safety First

Safety improvements include firewall protection and virus-scanning of inbound and outbound e-mail, something AOL's competitors started doing long ago. AOL copies an MSN 8 feature by enhancing its smut filter so children can e-mail parents in real time to request temporary unblocking of banned Web addresses.

For anyone plagued by spam-like instant messages, AOL will let you block commercial IM using what's called IM Catcher. The tool corrals incoming messages from people not on your buddy list and drops them into an IM Catcher window. Later, you can go back and cull through IM Catcher for messages you want to answer.

All safety-related features are easily accessed and managed through a new Safety icon that resides front and center on the top AOL menu bar. "We recognized there are a growing number of Internet threats out there and wanted to make sure our members could easily protect themselves," Pearce-Parkins says.

Ease of Use

One of the coolest additions to AOL 9.0 is QuickViews. This feature lets you mouse over an icon, like Mail, and preview the addresses of senders of recent incoming e-mail without having to launch the entire AOL Mail client. QuickViews work with a number of AOL functions. For example, if you hover your cursor over the Finance icon, it delivers a QuickView of your stock portfolio.

QuickView is also the name of an alternative, highly personalized start page from AOL that presents headlines, sports scores, stock quotes, and other up-to-the-minute information. The QuickView start page is similar to My Yahoo, a personalized news and information page.

AOL's Mail client is revamped in AOL 9.0. With it, you can read e-mail messages in a new right-hand preview window. The old AOL e-mail client made previewing messages a hassle and required you to double-click and open each e-mail message to view its contents. Also new is an optional left-hand window displaying e-mail storage folders.

AOL's e-mail improvements are a much-needed first step in offering AOL users a mature e-mail client, similar to Microsoft Outlook. The only problem with the preview window is that it scrunches e-mail messages into very long, narrow views, jumbling e-mail formatting and making messages hard to read.

Fun Stuff

Blogging arrives at AOL in a feature called AOL Journals. AOL adds a twist to the popular online diary form by giving members the ability to update their AOL Journals through either a Web interface, as most bloggers do, or by using instant messages or even the telephone (telephone updates are a premium service). The feature is not implemented for hands-on trial in the beta version, however.

Capitalizing on the popularity of instant messaging, AOL is working to improve the still-popular instant-messaging experience by adding SuperBuddy icons that appear inside AIM chat windows. SuperBuddy Icons, which will have the strongest appeal to kids and teens, are meant to jazz up online personas with three-dimensional heads of cartoon characters. SuperBuddy icons can make simple gestures and sounds through keystroke commands.

As for AOL's goal of "bringing the fun back," dial-up users of AOL 9.0 Optimized will have a chance to speed their surfing a bit. AOL has partnered with Inktomi to create the new Top Speed feature. AOL says Top Speed can speed browsing over dial-up connections by anticipating the links you're likely to click within a Web page. For example, it would automatically start downloading the top story from a news Web site before you clicked on the link, making the subsequent page load faster.

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