America Online is letting loose an unexpected beta release of version 8.0 of its client software - bringing it one version number ahead of rival MSN in the numbers game.
Version 8.0, code-named Coach, and which has appeared on several beta testing sites, mirrors the look and feel of its predecessor, America Online 7.0, with a slight tweaking of its color scheme. New features focus on improving the broadband experience, enhancing digital media, email functionality, and personalization.
The first beta build runs with Microsoft Corp.s Internet Explorer in lieu of the companys Netscape core Gecko engine.
An AOL spokesperson left the question of the browser engine open ended, stating that no announcements on the browser engine will be made until the final release approaches. The spokesperson added that the development of the client is in the initial stages, and only a few of the features have been included at this time. America Online has included the Gecko engine in its latest CompuServe updates.
A longstanding gripe of AOL subscribers has been the closure of all open windows immediately upon being disconnected from the service. In version 8.0, a new Auto-Reconnect feature lets users sign back in without losing their windows.
The AOL Time Warner juggernaut is continuing its push ahead to win the broadband race. America Online 8.0 release notes read, "Everything you need to connect via AOL High Speed DSL or Cable is now included in the client installation." An option to support home networks is also available.
Digital media sees some minor shuffling about in the beta. Audio and mixed media CDs can be played in any CDROM drive attached to the computer - in contrast to the previous client where the default drive was the sole option. If multiple CDs are found, a pop-up menu will prompt users to choose their preference.
Another point worth noting is that AOL partner Real Networks RealOne Player is installed by default, in version 8.0, and without user interaction.
The clients rudimentary email support has been enhanced. In this release, text based email signatures, and email stationary see their debut. In addition, address books can now be categorized and the clients ability to print out the listings has been improved.
Microsofts MSN 7 software was released just nine days after the release of AOL 7, back in October of 2001. Subsequent updates have enriched the software giants offerings as it has taken aim at disgruntled AOL subscribers. As part of a 10 million dollar marketing campaign, Microsoft has worked to develop software dubbed "TrueSwitch" to import AOL users files and settings to its own client.
Still, AOLs subscriber list has surpassed 34 million in comparison to MSNs 7.7 million dial-up and broadband subscribers.
This beta release comes after a recent mix up of company executives as the company attempts to get back on track. An AOL spokesperson downplayed the release, telling eWeek that the new software is being testing all the time. In addition, no time frame was given for the release of the new functionality.
Microsoft declined to comment.