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AOL previews new e-mail software

The company is testing "Fanfare," a beefed-up version of its AOL Communicator e-mail software, in a push to attract more broadband customers.

America Online has begun testing enhancements to its Internet service, including a beefed-up version of its AOL Communicator e-mail software that plays multimedia files.

The product, called "Fanfare," is essentially an updated version of Communicator with new features such as media playback, a calendar and spyware protection. Fanfare is similar to Communicator but with more options on the navigation screen. For instance, a user can pull down a panel with Radio@AOL and its video player next to e-mail messages and instant-messaging "buddy" lists.

While Fanfare pulls more features from the AOL proprietary client onto Communicator, the company said the enhancements do not signify any changes in priorities for AOL.

"We're adapting to how customers are using our services," AOL spokeswoman Anne Bentley said Friday. "This is not instead of (the AOL proprietary client). This is another benefit for the AOL for Broadband subscriber."

Like Communicator, Fanfare will come bundled with AOL's "classic" online service for broadband users. AOL for Broadband costs $14.95 a month and represents the company's attempt to sell its service to the growing number subscribers leaving AOL for high-speed Internet providers.

Details of AOL's development plans were first reported at online news site BetaNews.

Over the past year, the Internet giant has released updated versions of its broadband service, as well as a discount dial-up ISP under the Netscape moniker. It also has stopped offering broadband Internet access through its Road Runner corporate cousin, instead pointing customers to broadband providers in their local area.

These efforts stem from a growing awareness that Internet users are no longer sticking to its dial-up service. Despite having the largest Internet subscriber base in the world, AOL has watched millions of its dial-up customers leave over the past 18 months. Nevertheless, its AOL for Broadband service, which offers service without the Internet access, gained 700,000 new subscribers last quarter for a total of 2.8 million.

The company recently said it would begin offering more of its proprietary content onto the Web as part of a plan to revitalize and tap the recent upsurge in the online advertising market.

AOL said a preview of Fanfare will be available to the public by the end of the year. The company expects to officially launch the product next year.

The company this week also announced it released an updated version of its current AOL 9.0 software for dial-up customers. Called "Tahiti," the update includes enhancements to its spyware protection, better e-mail organization, more instant messaging features, and an AOL Search bar that can be embedded into a Web user's Internet Explorer browser.

AOL also began testing a service code-named Strauss, which is a slimmed-down version of the 9.0 software for PCs with limited memory.