New AOL Web Mail to Bring Free Service

America Online is rolling out a major upgrade to AOL Mail on the Web that lays the groundwork for a free Web mail service to be launched later this year. The move furthers AOL's strategy of opening its doors to non-members and will place the company on par with portal rivals MSN, Yahoo and Google.

The new Web mail service integrates AOL Instant Messenger presence awareness, drag and drop capabilities, a new address book, and the ability to rescind unread e-mail sent to other AOL members within a revamped user interface.

AOL has begun the process of opening up its AIM community to third parties and integrating the messaging service across its Web properties. AOL's trademark Running Man is displayed throughout AOL Web mail, indicating the online presence of friends, family and coworkers.

AOL is not the only portal site pulling real-time communications into e-mail; rival Hotmail has already made MSN Messenger presence a part of its service.

Along with AIM presence, specific usability enhancements AOL has added to its Web mail include: rich text for styled e-mail composition; natural drag and drop capabilities between folders; automatic inbox refreshing and real-time audible new mail notification; and convenience features like an auto-address too that fills known contacts into the address field.

Users can also set an automatic away message that sends a return message when they are unable to access e-mail, as well as unsend unread e-mail sent to other AOL members. The unsend feature has been available in the AOL client software since version 5.0.

AOL has included server side antivirus using McAfee definitions and spam detection elements to protect its members' security and privacy.

The new features are built out of technology acquired from Mailblocks in 2004 and have undergone continuous beta testing since December.

At the present time, AOL Mail on the Web is only available to AOL subscribers and limits mail storage capacity to 100MB per Screen Name. Competitors MSN and Google respectively offer members 250MB and 1GB of e-mail space.

AOL's ultimate goal is to ramp up its portal strategy. The AOL.com portal site has undergone a planned redesign that prominently places exclusive content feeds alongside Internet search and other AOL destinations. The content feeds have also been integrated into AIM, which primarily targets non-AOL members.

Additionally, AOL Search has been overhauled with a simplified tabless interface and vertical search capabilities that the company expects will return more intuitive results than its rivals. AOL has also debuted a local search offering and its SingingFish media search engine to build an audience on the open Web.

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