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Disney shows off D-mail

The Walt Disney Company gives a sneak preview of new features that will appear starting around December in its children's online service.

ATLANTA--The Walt Disney Company (DIS) today gave a sneak preview of new features, including D-mail, D-phone, and a 3D virtual-reality meeting place, which will appear starting around December in its children's online service.

The preview at the E3 show in Atlanta represents the next step in Disney's foray into a highly competitive marketplace. Most of the features had been expected, but Disney has kept its strategy under tight wraps.

The features will be added to Disney's Daily Blast, a Web-based subscription service that launched in April for $4.95 per month or $39.95 per year. The product is offered for free to Microsoft Network members; otherwise, it's "bring your own Internet access" for Netizens.

The additions to Daily Blast come in the form of a special communications interface being developed by Disney. They include the following:

  • D-mail, which allows users to send messages using a variety of fonts, colors, and Disney characters. In addition, a paint feature allows D-mailers to send artwork.

  • D-phone, a four-way instant messaging feature that lets Daily Blast users contact others who subscribe to the service. Using a pager-like interface on the monitor, D-phone allows users to send messages, call other users, and even send "whisper" messages to single users without alerting the others who may be in the chat room. There's also a "buddy list" that alerts users when friends also are online.

  • A 3D meeting place where Daily Blast users can assume the identity of a popular Disney character (like Jasmine or Mickey) and then enter a 3D Disney world based on a popular Disney place, such as Aladdin's castle or Mickey's house.

    Disney has not decided whether it will charge extra for these features. It plans to have D-mail and D-phone in time for the holidays, while the other products will be rolled out gradually in 1998. It also is developing full-auditorium chat later, but it offered no timetable.

    The company has not disclosed how many subscribers it has for Daily Blast, but it says that signups are "beyond internal projections." The company's goal is to be the largest Internet subscription service by year's end in terms of subscribers.

    Reviews mostly have been positive, but some critics point to the need for more features, such as the planned chat. They also question whether children would be interested in the news and sports that is offered on the site from Disney's other properties--ABC News and ESPN. Some users also complain that Disney should notify users when their free two-week trial ends rather than automatically billing their credit cards.

    Disney calls the practice an industry standard, just like that of AOL and MSN. Starting this month, however, the company is planning a free 30-day trial in a marketing promotion with the movie Hercules. No credit card deposit will be required.

    A Macintosh version of the Daily Blast software goes into beta next month and is expected to ship in late August.

    "The brand is powerful in its ability to market to parents, particularly wealthy and technologically savvy online parents, which are Disney's primary target," Liz Randolph, an analyst with Jupiter Communications said in a recent report.

    Last month, Nickelodeon launched a free Web site, which includes television program listings, games, trivia, jokes, and information on volunteerism. It is another example of a media giant using the Web to leverage its entertainment value and cross-promote itself using television. The Web has been cutting into TV viewing of late, and media companies would prefer to capitalize on the trend rather than suffer as a result of it.

    Freelancer Vince Matthews reported from Atlanta; Internet news editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.