RealTime IT News

AOL's Got (Free) Mail

In a play to grab the attention of more Internet users, America Online began testing a Web-based e-mail service that the company hopes will compete with similar services by Yahoo , MSN and Google .

The beta of the company's revamped Web-based e-mail service, called "AOL Mail on the Web," is currently accessible only to AOL subscribers, but eventually will be available to the public for free in 2005, said AOL spokeswoman Jaymelina Esmele.

An estimated 18 million members access aol.com each month, with about 90 percent using the site to check their e-mail, Esmele said.

"We wanted to ensure that we continued to offer them the best experience possible," she said, explaining why the company was offering the service to subscribers first.

Mail on the Web is expected to officially debut early next year for members, and then later in the year for the public, she said.

AOL has offered a Web-based e-mail for many years but only to paid subscribers. As more and more users have defected from dial-up services to high-speed connections, the Virginia-based company has seen a steady decrease in its subscription business. The move is being viewed as one way to lure people back by providing more free services to help boost advertising revenues.

"It is part of our broader strategy to offer more AOL services on the web to an audience beyond our members," Esmele said.

To begin the process of drawing Internet users back into the fold -- AOL has lost an estimated 4 million subscribers in the last two years -- the company released the beta version on Tuesday with a revamped interface and updated software features. Much like the big players in the free e-mail game, AOL Mail on the Web users can organize e-mails into folders, organize contacts, navigate a message search bar and take advantage of built-in spam control. Other AOL Web e-mail features include the ability to use rich-text options, such as different fonts and colors, Esmele said.

The technology comes from the anti-spam company Mailblocks, which AOL acquired in August, Esmele said.

The new e-mail is also integrated with the popular AOL Instant Messaging service. Members can respond to e-mails either using the traditional method, by hitting reply, or they can click AOL's "Running Man" Icon and launch into an Instant Message chat.

AOL's Web e-mail will include storage with a limit of 100MB, a lesser amount than the other services. Hotmail and Yahoo Mail provide users with 250MB storage, and Google's GMail provides 1GB.

The move comes at a time when AOL has been laying off employees while trying to restructure its business units. Earlier this month 750 employees were laid off.