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AOL fires up its own engine

Internet World The online giant debuts its own search service, dubbed AOL NetFind, for its members.

Internet World LOS ANGELES--America Online (AOL) is adding yet another feature to draw in customers with the debut of its own search service, dubbed AOL NetFind.

AOL NetFind will be available to AOL members and to nonmembers on the Web. The search feature also will be linked on the Web sites of Microsoft and ABC News.

NetFind was unveiled at a briefing today at Internet World here, where AOL also previewed other new products that it will offer this year. Among them was an Internet telephone for all 8 million members.

Internet service providers are increasingly turning to new and different features to help them differentiate themselves in a cutthroat market. AOL recently has taken a number of such steps, including striking a deal with television programming executive Brandon Tartikoff to create its own entertainment content. AOL also is rolling out "push" technology called Driveway this summer to broadcast information to its members' desktops.

With a product such as NetFind, AOL could offer some stiff competition to Internet directories or search engines such as Yahoo, Infoseek, and AltaVista. But AOL executives were quick to point out that the strategy of migrating to the Web with products such as NetFind was meant to supplement and not replace its plan to make money by charging monthly subscription fees.

NetFind will be supported by advertising, according to David Gang, senior vice president of AOL Networks. "The ad dollar is going to go to the market leader, and we have established ourselves as the market leader," he said.

Still, analysts say AOL has to get past its well-publicized problems for customer service. At the press briefing, reporters questioned Gang about potential misuse of the feature that embeds images in email, say, with pornographic pictures. Gang said AOL has set up a quick way to report the problem to an investigative team.

AOL's Web site offers a preview of the NetFind service, which is powered by the Excite search engine. It replaces the links to search engines run by other companies--Webcrawler and Excite--previously available on AOL.

The engine also lets members search for specific people or businesses. A NetFind for Kids, dubbed a "child's-eye view of the Net," introduces kids to a fictional character named Casey that guides them through the directory.

To go with the new search engine, the company also has packaged content from the likes of MapQuest, American City Business Journals, and Hoover's Business Directory, among others. The online service has also teamed up with Excite to review Web sites.

At a press briefing, AOL also previewed two other products: Casablanca, an upgraded version of its software, and Driveway, a push technology that automatically delivers news to users' desktops. Both products are due for beta testing this month and slated for release this summer.

Casablanca includes multimedia technology featuring animation, sound, and streaming pictures. It includes built-in ActiveX controls and plug-ins such as RealAudio, Shockwave, and FutureSplash. Features include images in email, Internet phoning, stylized text in live chat, and spelling and grammar checkers. Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser is embeded in the software.

The Internet phone feature, previously reported by CNET, drew much interest from the group. Gang said calls could last indefinitely, although connections can be inconsistent.

The demonstrations included some high drama, at least for an Internet trade show. Gang emailed a photo of his teenage daughter, Courtney, and held a live Net phone call with a colleague in Newport Beach, California.

Among the Driveway features were AOL Daily, a daily upgrade of stories from popular AOL subject areas, a customized news feature, and delivery of email messages, as well as postings from Internet newsgroups.

AOL's partners in the rollout include DejaNews, Switchboard, VDOnet, Progressive Networks, Macromedia, and PLS.

Separately today, AOL discussed new partnerships with content providers, including Barnes & Noble, The Late Night Show, and the Tax Time tax planning service. The online service is also adding a new international channel to its proprietary content offerings.