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AOL adds phone access to its online array

Along with the latest upgrade to its online service, the Internet giant unveils new services that allow members to access their accounts via the telephone and other non-PC devices.

In conjunction with the latest upgrade to its online service, America Online on Wednesday unveiled new services that allow members to access their accounts via the telephone and other non-PC devices.

The company announced the AOL by Phone service along with a new, customizable AOL Anywhere page, which members will be able to refine with features such as news, stock quotes, movie listings, traffic reports, and address book and job listings. The telephone service will let members use offerings such as email, buddy lists, calendars and photos via ordinary telephones or Web-enabled wireless phones, using a handheld organizer and other mobile devices.

AOL on Wednesday also launched AOL 6.0, which has a new design intended to provide easier access to popular AOL features and content. Improvements to the service's email and instant messaging features include new "buddy" icons that add visuals to instant messages and the ability to send automatic "away" and "do not disturb" replies, the company said.

As previously reported, AOL has launched its satellite-based AOL Plus using Hughes Electronics' DirecPC service as the company looks to increase its high-speed offerings.

The news comes as Dulles, Va.-based AOL nears the completion of its megamerger with media powerhouse Time Warner. The two companies earlier this month got the go-ahead from the European Commission on the deal, crossing the first hurdle en route to full approval by regulators. The companies still need approval from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission to close their deal.

You've got Time Warner Like rivals Yahoo and Microsoft, AOL has made aggressive efforts to score in high-growth areas such as the wireless Web and interactive television. The company's Anywhere strategy is a significant bet on the ability of the Internet to extend its reach beyond computer networks into the heavily touted areas of wireless communications, traditional broadcast media and Internet-enabled appliances.

Those rivals are not sitting still. Microsoft took aim at AOL on Wednesday with MSN Explorer, an Internet service that bundles Microsoft's array of Web services into its Internet Explorer browser.

Portals including Lycos and Yahoo, meanwhile, have already introduced voice services. Lycos earlier this month launched a new voice portal that lets people access a range of free content over the telephone. That move came after Yahoo's announcement that it would offer free telephone access to its Web content, news and email.

A large component of the AOL Anywhere strategy, the AOL by Phone service lets members access news, stock quotes, weather and email by calling a toll-free phone number. For the next few months, the service will be free, and beginning in February, it will cost a flat monthly rate of $4.95.

Included in AOL 6.0 is an upgrade to the email system, which will begin accepting messages encoded in HTML format, the coding language of the Web. Members will also be able to sort their mailboxes by date, sender and subject.

Members can get version 6.0 on CD-ROMs or download it from the Net at no cost.

AOL members will also be able to use a new feature, called Groups@AOL, to establish Web sites that can be visited only by people who have been invited. AOL said the new feature is designed for planning events and sharing family photos.

The launch is accompanied with a worldwide marketing campaign. In the United States, retail outlets including Target, Circuit City and Sears Roebuck will offer co-branded 6.0 disks. In addition, some supermarkets, office-supply stores and bookstores will make copies of the free software available at their locations.