AOL Tests New Portal

America Online is currently beta testing a new version of its portal that has a new look and feel, as well as new features.

America Online Inc. is currently beta testing a new version of its portal that has a new look and feel, as well as new features.

Currently on display on the companys Web site, the new design closely resembles the interface of the recently released America Online 7.0 client. Particularly similar is the toolbar with the familiar "Read" and "Write" icons for e-mail, buddy list, chat, channels and shop options.

For the first time, the AOL Instant Messenger Buddy List has become a main feature of the Web site. By clicking on the Buddy List icon on the toolbar, the browser resizes and opens a new window for the buddy list taking up a strip down the right side of the screen. No download of AOL Instant Messenger software is required to use this feature.

The "Channels" feature on the toolbar offers easy access to all of AOLs services by displaying a popup menu allowing quick selection of AOLs channel offerings including Entertainment, News or the Local Guide.

The new design also incorporates the familiar "Welcome" screen from AOLs software into the Web environment. Visitors to the new will see a revolving selection of links to AOLs content areas and special promotions like AOL Plus DSL.

"It looks as if AOLs beta site extends the existing AOL proprietary service to the Internet and gives users predetermined content and advertising. It does not appear that they have servicesto automatically update consumers about the information they want--for instance, how many new e-mails they have--and finding content can be a challenge [i.e., music]," said Sarah Lefko, lead product manager for MSN. "MSN was designed based on consumer feedback, and were confident that people will find us to be the most useful service on the Internet," she added.

AOLs "Magic Carpet" screen name sign-in service is a larger part of the new design, yet does not appear to indicate a full launch of the stealth competitor to Microsofts .Net Passport service. Magic Carpet is the code name for a new AOL service that will allow holders of AOL, AOL Instant Messenger and CompuServe screen names to sign in to sites with only their screen name and password.

Last month, America Online released the latest version of its flagship service, AOL 7.0. America Online 7.0 includes improvements to instant messaging, e-mail and the overall interface. Just days before that, Microsoft Corp. was testing the latest version of its own Web portal as part of the release of MSN 7.

Over the weekend, Yahoo released the latest version of its instant messaging software, Yahoo Messenger 5.0. The latest version from Yahoo features an improved chat interface.

AOL did not return requests for comment by press time.