New software aims to breathe life into AOL |  Networking

America Online Inc. (AOL) rolled out what the company touts as its most important product release, taking the wraps off its much-anticipated AOL 8.0 Internet access software on Tuesday, boasting more than 100 new features.

The company is looking to 8.0 as a possible life saver as it struggles to keep afloat amid a tumultuous market, and while faced with rising competition and waning investor confidence.

The new software, which will be officially launched during a glitzy event in New York Tuesday, is designed to bring AOL back to its roots, with a focus on user self-expression and community-based features. The launch comes a little more than a week before Microsoft Corp. is set to release the 8.0 version of its MSN Internet access software, in what has been dubbed the "battle of the 8s."

But AOL said that competition wasn't the only impetus for its feature-packed 8.0.

"We looked honestly in the mirror and we said the latest release we did -- maybe the last couple of releases -- weren't all they could be and we can do better this time," said AOL Vice President Jeffrey Kimball during an interview at Internet World in New York earlier this month.

"So we put some aggressive goals for ourselves. Let's understand the themes we are about -- we are about connecting people," he said.

Indeed, many of the more significant changes are centered around what AOL calls "community" features.

For instance, the new "MatchChat" feature that lets users locate real-time discussions in their areas of interests, and e-mail, the service's most central communication function, have been overhauled to help users sort mail and share content.

AOL 8.0 offers e-mail management functions that categorize mail into one of three groups: "People I Know," "Bulk Senders" and "Unknown Senders," identified by icons next to each mail. And all the mail sits in users' main inboxes so they do not have to search through different folders to sort their mail.

This approach comes in sharp contrast with the "Bulk Mail" folder approach taken by other e-mail providers.

"When we looked at that system, there was a brick wall we ran into," said Kimball. "It just makes things harder. This way, mail from people you know bubbles to the top."

An "away message' feature has also been added, and built-in antivirus features are in the works.

Other significant changes include expanded wireless and online alerts, and a new Call Alert premium service that lets users monitor their incoming phone calls while online.

And, of course, there are the cosmetic changes, which include a seafoam background with additional desktop themes and a toolbar, as well as six new welcome screens catered to different interests.

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