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AOL debuts new site, software

The company discusses its software upgrade and expanded Web-based offerings at Internet World.

    NEW YORK--As expected, America Online (AOL) executives today briefed the press about the company's expanded Web presence and upgraded software at the Internet World trade show.

    The new products include AOL NetMail, which enables AOL members to send and receive AOL email from any computer with Web access; AOL Instant Messenger, AOL's real-time, global messaging service on the Internet; My News, a customizable news headline aggregator; Web channels, which are content groupings similar to what is found on the AOL proprietary online service; message boards; and a My Web bookmark list.

    Net Mail is currently in beta, while My News will be introduced in the next few weeks, AOL officials said. Part of the My News feature will let users access their stock portfolios.

    Net Mail is built with Active X, so Internet Explorer users can access it just by visiting the site. Netscape users, however, have to download Active X as a plug-in, AOL officials said. Net Mail is the only service on that has not yet been written in HTML.

    "NetMail will move toward HTML over time," said David Gang, AOL's senior vice president of product marketing. "Our goal is to have people show up and not download anything."

    AOL is developing a Java version of Net Mail with Lotus Development, which is scheduled for release in February. Despite the fact that, until February, Net Mail will be available only as an Active X component, AOL says it not using as a way to steer its audience toward Internet Explorer. AOL uses a branded version of Internet Explorer as the browser within its online service.

    The goal of the new features is to bring certain AOL services onto the Web so that AOL members can access them from any Web browser.

    "They [AOL] now have a meaningful Web presence, which makes a competitive landscape even more competitive," said Paul Noglows, Internet analyst at Hambrecht & Quist. "I think they'll be a force on the Internet as much as they are online."

    In a separate release today, AOL announced a new distribution partnership for AOL Instant Messenger with Qualcomm, makers of the popular Eudora email software, aimed at making AOL Instant Messenger available to Eudora's 18 million Internet users.

    This comes on the heels of Eudora's announcement yesterday that it will offer free, Web-based email, using WhoWhere's technology, starting January 1. (See related story)

    AOL also announced that it will offer Eudora Pro as an email option within its online service.

    Qualcomm spokesman Ed Knowlton acknowledged that Qualcomm and AOL have a "cooptition" relationship, referring to one that has both cooperation and competition aspects to it. He said the competition side of it comes at the entry-user level.

    Qualcomm has felt pressure lately in the email market, especially from Microsoft. "A lot of people thought Microsoft would crush us," he said. "They've sighted in on us with big guns, and now it's time to take a left turn."

    AOL's new software, version 4.0, borrows interface features from Web browsers, including Back and Forward buttons and similar tool- and navigation bars. AOL officials made it clear that their goal is to make the company's online service and the Web seamless. When demonstrating the software, the officials would jump from the proprietary service to the Web site, which illustrated the similarities.

    The officials also stressed that they would continue to support earlier versions of the proprietary software.

    Gang said earlier this week that the long-awaited AOL 4.0 software is being implemented in phases. Members will be able to start downloading the software this holiday season, he said, and CD-ROMs will be shipped "later in 1998."

    AOL, which has been criticized before for poor system access, is taking no chances with this new software. Instead of letting everyone download the software at once, something that could easily overwhelm the system, the company will be offering and marketing it incrementally.

    "We are rolling it out slowly to make sure members have a good experience," Gang said in an online interview. The speed of the rollout will depend largely on the system and modem availability, he added.

    AOL's announcements follow the trend of sites such as search directories Yahoo and Excite, as well as Web-based service Snap (Snap is owned by CNET: The Computer Network), which have evolved into complex sites aimed at luring Netizens seeking more direction in cyberspace.

    Both Yahoo and Excite have added free email and have been developing new partnerships with players that they hope will make their Web sites more valuable.

    AOL moving onto the Web "blunts any of the moves being made by Yahoo and Excite and any of the others out there," said Brian Oakes, an analyst with Lehman Brothers.

    AOL also may be looking to expand its horizons beyond the traditional dial-up network. At the cable industry's Western Show, AOL's Robert Pittman said in a panel discussion that there is a need to deliver interactivity through television sets. In order for a mass market for such services to develop, companies had to adopt a different model for interactive than is used today for PCs, he said. Pittman also spoke of AOL's interest in doing "some sort of AOL TV" service. While not divulging details, Pittman said AOL would "want to make [TV] better, not do something different."

    In response to a question at Internet World about a version of AOL for Net TVs, AOL officials said they would consider a special version of AOL for that platform if and when it becomes a mass market.

    While is sure to bring home revenue, that is not its raison d'etre, Oakes said. "The push is to give access to AOL, or at least pieces of AOL, from outside your home. It's to make AOL ubiquitous. It's not ubiquitous at businesses."

    NEWS.COM reporters Janet Kornblum and Jim Davis contributed to this report.