AOL released a couple of upgrades to its Webmail app today--they're not in the regular program yet, but if you're a desperate AOL junkie who wants to check them out, the new features can be tested on its beta site.
I gave the beta a brief spin, though I must say I haven't used AOL Webmail enough to really be able to compare it to anything. (I had to use my leftover screenname from AOL's early days to access it, and let's just say I haven't used AOL mail much since 2001.) The updates are basically for the purpose of making the program more user-friendly: a new, simplified interface that leaves more room for the e-mail content itself, no pop-up windows for new mail messages, and smoother running times. And like in Gmail, instant messaging is (somewhat) integrated into the mail client. You can see which of your contacts are online, but in order to IM them you have to be transferred to your instant-messaging software. Plus, there's a TMZ.com feed, because obviously every AOL Webmail user needs to have access to celebrity gossip at all times.
It looks all right. It's not going to make anyone switch to AOL Mail from Gmail or Yahoo, but it might prevent some AOL users from doing the reverse.
The beta version of AOL Webmail, for the record, is codenamed "Cayman." I'm not sure what the codename protocol is over there, but those out-of-the-blue nicknames have always puzzled me. I dare them to codename their next product with a friendly moniker that doesn't echo of big-money tropical island getaways. You know, like "Kittens." Or "Muffins." Come on, AOL's had worse ideas than that.