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Let battle commence

AOL 8.0 launches just days ahead of MSN 8.0, but does it offer enough to beat its rival?

As Microsoft prepares the US launch the first subscription-based version of its internet access software MSN 8.0, market leader AOL is ready to fight back with AOL 8.0 which was unveiled in the States today.

The American version of the software boasts over 100 new features, but AOL UK was keen to point out that the version of AOL 8.0 we will see over here will not offer the same features that are seen across the pond.

But the success or failure of the software in the key US market could have an impact on the company globally. Despite having over 35 million members, recently growth has been sluggish leaving AOL struggling to keep afloat amid a tumultuous market. It also has the threat of MSN 8.0 snapping at its heels and must address waning investor confidence.

By launching today it is over a week ahead of rival Microsoft, which is not due to unleash MSN 8.0 until 24 October. But AOL is keen to stress that the focus of version 8.0 isn't one-upmanship, instead it sees the software maker going back to its roots, with a focus on user self-expression and community-based features, and hopefully coming up with a better product as a result.

"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.

Many of the new features do centre on the idea of connecting a community of users. For example MatchChat allows users to detect real-time discussions in their areas of interest. The email feature has also been enhanced to offer improved sorting and sharing.

The look of the software has also been changed with a seafoam background, additional desktop themes and new welcome screens tailored to different interests.

The content featured will also be customised to suit the time of day — for example, in the morning news headlines will feature prominently but come Thursday and Friday afternoon movie and entertainment listings will hog the limelight.

AOL 8.0 comes bundled with the latest version of the popular AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) tool, which features animated Buddy icons and sounds. Users will also be able to share music via AIM.

Other new features include the Companion icon which stays on the desktop and alerts users to new emails and instant messages and an alert service which sends personalised news and reminders via email, instant message or a wireless device.

Whether all these features reach UK users will not be revealed for sometime. "The AOL software is developed for the US and then localised specifically for each further market. This will take a few months at the very least," explains AOL communications manager Joss Cole.

Cole also pointed out that "It's highly likely that [the UK version of AOL 8.0] won't have the same features [as in the US]. It depends what features are appropriate, and some are dependent on deals with local partners." She said that the company does not have the final list of the features that will appear in the UK version, and for the moment it will continue to offer AOL 7.0.

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