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AOLbyPhone Enhanced In Time For Christmas

America Online Inc., subscribers dreading an absence of the comforting "You have mail!" prompt on their PC while away for the holidays this weekend can breathe easier with expanded features and functionality to AOLbyPhone, officials announced Wednesday.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, the saying goes, and subscribers who can't wait to get back home before logging on can call the toll-free number to receive AOL's latest news, check emails or do some last-minute shopping.

Part of the company's "AOL Anywhere" strategy, AOLbyPhone is bundled with version 6.0, which was shipped worldwide recently. With the phone service, subscribers can call a toll-free number and access their email using plain-English voice commands, among other features.

Ted Leonsis, AOL Interactive Properties Group president, said the improvements are part of the Internet service provider's goal to provide AOL features to subscribers, even if they're nowhere near a computer.

"The introduction of these new features and functionality marks a significant milestone for AOLbyPhone," Leonsis said. "AOL members have embraced the service and have realized the power of being able to access their favorite AOL features no matter where they are, simply by using their telephone."

Sweetening the pot for potential subscribers, AOLbyPhone users who want to respond to an email can immediately reply to the sender with a free two-minute domestic phone call. AOL has also beefed up its content, providing the latest news, sports and financial and weather updates by area code or city.

The improved services come at a time beneficial for both AOL officials and its subscribers.

The enhancements were released right before the long Christmas weekend, when many families are away from their homes and their computers. It's a great beta-testing ground for officials who want to seriously test the capabilities of the still-new product.

While AOL officials were not available for a response, it's a sure bet the current number of AOLbyPhone users are mainly a minority of business people, not families.

And it's critical for AOL to reach out and get the family involved in the phone service. If enough of its 26 million current subscribers get hooked on AOLbyPhone over the holiday weekends, they are more inclined to pony up the $4.95 per month charge AOL will demand starting in February, 2001. The service remains free until then.

The technology behind AOLbyPhone comes from Mountain View, CA, startup Quack.com and its voice-to-web interface, which was assimilated by AOL in late August. With a voice-enabled Web site, telephone users are able to access the latest news and shop by saying the pre-determined command word, triggering a rundown on that items content.

Alex Quilici, Quack.com chief executive officer, said it was the company's ability to ramp up its services quickly as one of the factors for AOL's buyout.

"AOLbyPhone has the unique ability to act on consumer demand," Quilici said. "Our unparalleled capabilities allow us to add new voice command services faster when our members want it. Our revolutionary technology keeps AOLbyPhone ahead of the curve and continuously enhances the consumer experience."