Called Open Mail Access, the feature can be used on any e-mail software that supports Internet Message Access Protocol, which lets applications access e-mail off other servers.
The launch of the tool, expected Thursday, is the latest step in AOL's attempts to ramp up its service in the face of dial-up subscriber losses and an uncertain future for its broadband product. AOL hopes that added offerings will make its service more appealing to existing subscribers and potential new ones.
The new feature could also mark a new direction in the company's strategy. For most of its lifespan, AOL has prided itself on its exclusive content and services. But with the recent rebound in online advertising and the surge in paid search, the company has become more willing to push its propriety content and services outside its walls.
Earlier this month, AOL said it would begin implementing new HTML-based Web-publishing technology in order to, meaning more would be available to nonmembers. While the company remained vague about its ambitions, an executive said HTML would give AOL "more flexibility to evaluate its options."
Meanwhile, AOL's Netscape subsidiary, which last year was hit with a massive layoff, also isand plans to take "a dramatically different direction," a Netscape representative said Monday.
Yahoo also has an e-mail-forwarding system, but charges for it. AOL's Open Mail Access comes as part of its subscription.