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AOL 4.0 in limited beta test

The first 50,000 America Online customers have downloaded the "limited preview" of the service's updated software, company executives say.

    The first 50,000 America Online (AOL) customers have downloaded the new publicly available "limited preview" version of the service's system software, AOL 4.0, and company executives are getting ready for the next round of releases.

    AOL had run a private beta test with 20,000 users for several months and just last week began a very limited rollout of the public preview release of the software, code-named Casablanca.

    The online giant began advertising the availability of the long-awaited system software on members' welcome screens at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday. By 12:45 p.m. Wednesday, the service reached the cap of 50,000 downloads and had to shut it off.

    It is now is evaluating comments about the new version and plans to release more copies--probably another 50,000--later this week, David Gang, senior vice president of product marketing, said in an online interview.

    The total number of downloaded copies now stands at 70,000, a small fraction of AOL's 10 million members.

    The company is hoping that eventually, all 10 million members will upgrade their software, although it will continue to support older versions. Many AOL customers use older computers and systems that can't run the latest software. The new software requires at least a 486 PC with 16 megabytes of RAM and 30 megabytes of hard-disk space. The new software is for Windows only.

    The new software highlights AOL's offerings, including its channel lineup. It also attempts to create a seamless link between AOL's proprietary network and the Web. In the current version, the user has to understand how to navigate within AOL to take advantage of the proprietary AOL material. If a user wants to surf the Internet, he or she also has to know how to find the entrance from AOL and navigate on the Web.

    The idea behind the new software is that customers won't have to know two navigation systems.

    Users of the new software seem to be giving it mixed reviews on AOL's message boards set up for feedback. While many say they like it, others complain about problems that range from system crashes and freezes to trouble logging on, the system sucking up too much memory, and being able to dither between screen names without having to give passwords.

    Gang said that in general, the AOL 4.0 beta has been more stable and reliable than the AOL 3.0 beta.

    "The beta probably had some operating system problems, but performance so far is better than 3.0," he said.

    Others have complained that the new software does not offer features they had hoped would be included, such as a new Internet newsgroup reader or a feature that prevents members from using the Instant Messaging capabilities to perform malicious acts such as a "punt," a practice whereby instant messages are used to overload a system and kick a user offline.

    Some members also complained about AOL's limited roll-out, and many asked to be sent the program. But AOL officials want to be sure they don't have too many people trying to download the program at once for fear they will clog up the system.

    AOL executives say they are trying to be careful to avoid the wrath of members who complained bitterly about poor access to the system when AOL last year went to flat-rate pricing. At the time, attorneys general throughout the country came down on the company for promising unlimited access and then failing to prepare for the onslaught of customers.