AOL, Microsoft Ready 8.0

As the rivals ready their latest Internet software, the focus is on customization.

America Online Inc. and Microsoft Corp. are gearing up for launches of their latest Internet software, and as with prior releases will try to match and outdo each other with new features—this time with an eye on customization.

While Microsoft, of Redmond, Wash., has been forthcoming with many of the new features due in MSN 8, AOL has tried to keep things quiet until the software is formally launched. However, sources say theres quite a number of similarities between the two offerings.

For example, while Microsoft stresses MSN 8s new parental controls, customization, elegance, and the best e-mail functionality, the core of AOL 8.0 is expected to be similarly customizable and feature an improved look and feel.

With 8.0, AOL has included several new features that allow users to customize how the service looks. "AOL Desktop Themes" allow for customization of the background within the AOL client, similar to the wallpaper function within Windows. "Toolbar Themes" let the look of the toolbar at the top of the AOL window to be changed.

AOL is also becoming more aggressive in the long-running battle for desktop. The new "AOL Companion" can appear constantly on the screen informing the user of how many e-mails and instant messages they have waiting. The small, resizable pane can also be used to display other information, such as the latest headlines, weather reports, or to search the web with AOL Search. The companion can be disabled for users who would like to minimize screen clutter.

In a unique new option, AOL 8.0 allows the user to customize what sound is used on other peoples computers when they send instant messages to them. This feature can be disabled for users who wish to maintain a consistent noise for all incoming messages.

AOL 8.0s instant messaging also shows when the other person is typing, making it easier to tell if the person is going to respond to your message. This feature was first introduced in AOL Instant Messenger 5.0, which became available in September.

The most obvious customization addition for AOL members with the new software is the custom "Welcome screen." Currently, this can be changed to any one of six different focuses: headlines and business, nightlife and culture, online essentials, music and games, family, or broadband.

One feature present ever since the early beta versions of AOL 8.0 is the new "auto-reconnect." This function ends years of gripes by AOL members that they lose their place when they become disconnected from the service. With this addition, the software will automatically reconnect without closing all of a users open windows.