As launch looms, AOL 8.0 details begin to emerge –

A week before America Online Inc. (AOL) is set to roll out its new feature-packed software, more details of AOL 8.0 are starting to emerge, including information about a premium call-waiting service and six themed welcome screens.

The offerings are part of a host of new features set to be launched with the software during a glitzy ceremony in New York next Tuesday, where pop diva Alanis Morissette and other entertainers are reportedly scheduled to perform.

AOL executives started discussing details of the upcoming software at the Internet World 2002 in New York last week.

The new bells and whistles are just part of an overall effort by the Dulles, Virginia, ISP to shore up its business amid dwindling advertising revenues and falling subscriber rates. The company hopes that AOL 8.0 will breathe new life into the service as it faces mounting competition from rivals like Microsoft Corp., which is also unleashing the 8.0 version of its MSN Internet service later this month.

The new call-waiting service, which will allow users to monitor incoming calls while they are online, is also a premium offering, allowing the company to tack on an extra US$3.95 a month for the feature, according to company officials interviewed at Internet World. Meanwhile, the themed welcome screens are part of a larger effort to make the service more personalized, they said.

In fact, more features of 8.0 seems to be centered around catering to individual users' personalities. During a keynote address at Internet World Thursday, AOL head Jon Miller, tapped in August to revamp AOL Time Warner Inc.'s (AOLTW) sagging Internet service, teased another personalized feature of 8.0 -- the ability for users to immediately find and engage other members in a chat on a specific interest.

By tailoring AOL 8.0 to users' individual needs, AOL hopes to slow its subscriber churn and mark a positive start under new leadership after falling victim to numerous slings and arrows of misfortune.

Besides a weak ad market and crawling subscriber growth, the unit has not only been blamed for the precipitous drop in AOLTW's stock price but has come under dual government investigations for its accounting practices.

The latest blow appeared in a report published in the Wall Street Journal Monday, which said that U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigators are looking into AOLTW's investment and advertising agreement with woman-focused cable channel Oxygen Media Inc. According to the report, AOLTW Cable agreed to put Oxygen on its cable systems without a launch fee in return for buying US$100 million worth of advertising on AOL. However, the media company allegedly managed to book the ad revenue for both AOL and its cable division.

No one at AOLTW was immediately available to comment on the report.

While the Oxygen deal is just the latest AOL transaction to catch regulators' eyes, it also signals that the government is examining other units of AOLTW -- in this case, its cable division.

While the pressure is on, members of the Internet unit are keeping their hopes pinned on the new software.

Shares in the company (AOL) slid 3.6 percent Monday to $11.38 a share.

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